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Tradition of Olympic Swimming Trials in Omaha Leads to Spike in Growth of Nebraska Youth Swimming

Jun 3, 2021

The spirit of the swimming trials on display in 2016 at the Gene Leahy Mall.
Credit Ian Echlin

Not since Scott Usher has a Nebraska native made the men’s or women’s USA Swimming team competing in the Olympics.

But that may change soon.

The first of two waves in the trials begins Friday (June 4) at CHI Center. It will be the fourth consecutive time the trials are held in Omaha. The swimmers who qualify in Omaha will advance to the Tokyo Olympic games scheduled to start on July 23. Because of the pandemic last year, the trials and the Olympics were postponed for a year.

Usher, a native of Grand Island, was on the USA team that competed in the 2004 Olympics, but four years later when he set out to qualify for the USA team again, he desparately wanted to make the national team through the swimming lanes in Omaha.

“Having that opportunity, I still remember, I had probably 30 family members wearing a bright green shirt in the stands,” says Usher works for USA Swimming as the director of development in fundraising. “I remember doing the test event the month before and having a lot of local people wanting my autograph and cheering for me. It’s giving me goosebumps to think about.”

Only the top two finishers in each event’s final are locked into a spot on the national team and Usher in ‘08 finished third in the 200-meter breaststroke.

“I have some tremendous memories and that was one way to end my career. In Omaha,” recalls Usher. “I couldn’t have had anything better quite frankly.”

Developmental swimming got a boost in Omaha when, in the middle of the pandemic, the University of Nebraska Omaha announced that it’s adding a men’s swimming and diving program on top of the women’s swimming and diving that’s already in place.

“We’ll have some out-of-state swimmers, but by and large we’re going to have a lot of opportunities for young people who are competing in the same town as people all across the country are dreaming (of),” says UNO athletics director Trev Alberts. “It’s (the trials) the pinnacle of what they’re ultimately trying to get to.”

Alberts compares the impact of the swimming trials to how much the College World Series means to young aspiring baseball players.

“The College World Series is four miles from our campus,” says Alberts, and he wryly adds, “Probably makes a little bit of sense that the public institution in that community sponsors the very sport that every institution across the country is trying to come and compete at.”

Usher says, by staying in contact with coaches in Nebraska, he has learned from them about the growth of the sport on the youth level.

“They all reiterate the fact that having trials in Omaha has an impact on the swimming community in Omaha, but also in Nebraska as a whole,” he says.

Brian Jensen, who was Usher’s coach in Grand Island, still coaches swimming at Grand Island High School and at the Grand Island YMCA swimming club.

The highest seeded native Nebraskan is former Lincoln Southwest High School standout Olivia Calegan, who swam collegiately at North Carolina State. She’ll be in the second wave of the trials as a No. 4 seed in the 200-meter breaststroke.