During the first night of the 2008 Olympic Swim Trials in Omaha, Tyler Clary touched the wall and was startled to see a 20-foot jet of flame shooting from the pool deck.
"I thought, 'What the hell is going on?' '' the California native said. "It was incredible. It was insane.''
It was like no meet America's top swimmers had ever seen.
Live pyrotechnics on deck. Star-spangled pageantry. And the biggest crowds ever to watch swimming on U.S. soil.
Omaha made a huge splash in hosting the 2008 meet. Four years later, the fast lane to the Olympics once again runs through Omaha, as the Trials for the 2012 London Games come to the CenturyLink Center June 25 to July 2.
Now that the calendar has turned to the Olympic year, local organizers and USA Swimming say they're working to make this year's meet even better.
"We did everything we could to get the Trials to come back to Omaha,'' said Mike Unger, assistant executive director for USA Swimming. "We had a perfect city, a great venue, a community that was really receptive and then the buzz of the Trials themselves. We feel we've got the same things in place for 2012.''
Back in 2008, the nation's top swimmers weren't sure what to expect in visiting a city that was not exactly known as a hotbed for their sport. But after seeing the way Omaha embraced the Trials — welcoming the competitors on the streets and charging up the atmosphere in the arena — they say they can't wait to come back.
"It's awesome,'' two-time Olympic champion Natalie Coughlin said of the return. "I couldn't believe how much the town got behind us.''
"You could really feel the energy,'' added Rebecca Soni, a gold medalist in the breast stroke. "It was way more than a normal swim meet, when everyone is half glazed over.''
Soni and Coughlin are among 1,500 swimmers who have hit qualifying times for this year's Trials, up from about 1,200 in 2008.
Officials with USA Swimming and the Omaha Sports Commission, the event's local host, are confident the crowds will be bigger, too. Ticket sales are running a little ahead of 2008, when the meet drew a record 160,003 over eight days.
Once again, the competition figures to feature some compelling story lines.
Michael Phelps, who came through Omaha on his way to a record eight gold medals in Beijing, this time around will in all likelihood be competing for the last time in the U.S. And while Phelps is unquestionably the greatest swimmer of all time, fellow American Ryan Lochte is making a strong case that he's the best right now. The swimming titans are expected to clash head-to-head at least twice in both Omaha and London.
On the women's side, there's an emerging young superstar in 16-year-old Missy Franklin, the ageless Dara Torres will at 45 bid to make her sixth Olympic team, and Coughlin seeks to become the most-decorated women's Olympic swimmer ever.
Big names and big crowds also would likely translate into another big economic impact. The 2008 meet left $23 million rippling through the area economy, with six out of 10 tickets bought by people coming in from out of town. Among local sporting events, only the College World Series and its affiliated youth baseball tournaments pack a bigger punch.
The CWS and Trials this time will be linked in another way: They'll overlap for at least one day — possibly two. And with the CWS move downtown, the events now will be staged just blocks apart.
While that creates some logistical headaches, the more organizers have considered the conflict, the less concerned they are.
Even combining the crowds, the roughly 40,000 people downtown for the evening would be just a few thousand more than the typical turnout at CenturyLink Center Omaha for a Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting.
The proven ability of Omaha police to keep traffic moving around the ballpark and arena, an increase in downtown parking spaces and use of shuttle buses from other nearby locations should make it manageable, organizers say.
"It's not a big deal,'' said Harold Cliff, the top executive with the Omaha Sports Commission.
USA Swimming's Unger said he actually sees some benefit in having the events linked on the calendar, making Omaha an even more attractive sports destination this summer. Both events will be televised live nationwide on those days, probably a first of its kind for Omaha.
"The city is going to be abuzz during those couple of weeks,'' he said.
Even before the 2008 Trials wrapped up, USA Swimming and the Omaha Sports Commission were already in talks about bringing the meet back again in four years. It had been an unqualified success, running with smooth precision and drawing over 50,000 more fans than the 2004 Trials in Long Beach, Calif.
One of the big pluses was the CenturyLink, then called Qwest. When the portable pool was set up inside, the arena looked like it had been built just for swimming. The Qwest's adjacent convention center made it possible to put a warm-up pool just 100 meters away, and it also accommodated a popular exposition area for fans.
"It's an amazing facility,'' said Frank Busch, national team director for USA Swimming. "There aren't many towns in America that could do a better job than Omaha.''
Throw in that most top athletes stayed in hotels within walking distance of the arena, the airport was just five minutes away and meals were provided for swimmers on site, and the competitors had all they needed to swim their best, said Teri McKeever, coach of the U.S. women's team.
"It's more like an Olympic village setup,'' she said. "As a coach, it allows you to coach instead of being a caterer and chauffeur.''
But popular as it proved, the encore almost didn't happen. The original dates USA Swimming wanted for 2012 directly conflicted with the CWS. In fact, it was first reported that the Trials would not return.
It took some high-powered negotiations involving some of the biggest national players in sports — including the NCAA, the U.S. Olympic Committee, USA Swimming, the Omaha Sports Commission, the CWS, ESPN and NBC — before a satisfactory schedule could be hashed out.
In the process, a new partnership was formed between the Omaha Sports Commission and USA Swimming.
For the 2008 Trials, the commission paid a sizable rights fee to USA Swimming and assumed all the responsibilities and risks for putting on the $5 million meet. In the end, the nonprofit commission came out a little ahead in the venture but also won a gold medal for publicity. The success of the Trials was a major factor in Omaha landing the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships for 2013.
For 2012, the sports commission approached USA Swimming about working as full partners. Both expect to come out better financially in the deal. But the biggest benefit will be that, in tackling the thousands of details that go into hosting such a major competition, the three-man sports commission now gains access to USA Swimming's expertise and 80-person staff.
Cliff and Unger don't think they need to change much, and the familiarity of Omaha will benefit organizers as well as competitors.
Job one, Cliff said, is again running a flawless meet. He said the sports commission didn't receive a single complaint from a swimmer, coach or fan last time, and he wants to keep it that way. The swimmers — whether they're among the select 52 to make the Olympic team or not — deserve to have a great experience, he said.
"The swimmers are the stars of the show,'' Cliff said. "We just try to set the stage.''
But organizers also want to put on a show for fans, too. The 2008 Trials were as much rock concert as swim meet, as organizers used lights, music and other effects to help set the mood. They have plans to enhance the atmosphere this time, though they're not ready to spill specifics.
The green waterfall, which served as the spectacular backdrop during the medals ceremonies, proved popular and will be back, Unger said. Cliff and Unger said you also can expect more surprises akin to the fire that shot from the deck when world records fell, taking advantage of ever-advancing technology.
"We definitely have some plans to spice things up,'' Unger said.
All-new temporary lighting will enhance the view for the millions tuning in to Omaha on TV. All eight nights of the trials will be televised live on NBC as part of its prelude to the London Games — double the coverage from 2008.
While it's still too early to predict, the 2012 Trials may not even be the last for Omaha. Neither USA Swimming nor the Omaha Sports Commission has ruled out a return in 2016. There will be no shortage of other cities competing, some of which will be scouting out Omaha during this year's Trials.
For USA Swimming, it may come down to balancing the national exposure the sport garners from moving the meet around versus the upside of sticking with a proven winner.
"If the situation in Omaha turns out to be best,'' Unger said, "that's where you want to be.''
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