Last week Andy Bashor set the stage for his swimmers. This is not a meet, he told them. This is an event.
This is a pool that includes a huge video board, the likes of which you normally find in high tech basketball arenas. There will be 13,000 people in the stands. Events will take place for a week instead of over three days. Oh, and if you look to your right, there's Michael Phelps walking next to you on the pool deck.
This is the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials with more than 1,800 swimmers hoping for the elusive opportunity for a spot in the 2012 London Games. Among those hopefuls are seven athletes from the University at Buffalo who will compete in 11 different events. While the trials got underway Monday, Buffalo's swimmers begin competition today with Matt Schwippert (Iroquois) and Phil Aronica (Orchard Park) competing in the 100 backstroke and Matt Hogan in the 200 freestyle.
"This to me, it's really huge to be able to have this many swimmers here competing for the university," Bashor said by phone from Omaha. "Four years ago when I was two years into the job, we didn't have anybody qualify. Over these four years, we've been able to attract this level of athlete. With their hard work and the coaching staff we have been working with them, they were able to elevate themselves to get to this level."
While the atmosphere is completely unique (add in the College World Series taking place practically across the street from the CenturyLink Center and the energy is pretty high), the format is routine. Swimmers compete in the preliminaries beginning at 11 a.m. with semifinals and finals at 7:45 p.m.
Reminiscent of the famous scene in Hoosiers, Bashor reminded his swimmers that the pool is still 50 meters long, just like the one they train in back in Buffalo.
"You can get star struck at first, but you get over it quickly," Bashor said. "Some of our guys were at elite meets in the last couple years and it [hit] them when they were warming up that Michael Phelps was right beside them. So they have a little experience with that.
"We had [Monday] to walk around, soak it all in, see how it feels to be at the pool and then be able to start to relax and remember it's a 50-meter pool just the like every other pool we've competed in."
Only the top two in the finals make the U.S. Olympic Team. Beating out Ryan Lochte or Missy Franklin for a spot on Team USA is highly unlikely. That reality check, however, doesn't mean the end of dreams and determination.
"Coming here and competing with the best is very important — to be able to have that mindset and go out there and compete and race and then to be able to achieve a best time," Bashor said. "Sometimes, athletes are satisfied just making the cut, but you can take that one step further. To swim in this arena and in this environment, you can show yourself you can handle this pressure and go out and swim a lifetime best. And that's huge.
"We've talked about this. You can't control other people and what they do. You can control what you do and focus on yourself. If you go out there and swim your race and trust your training, good things will come about."
A live webcast of the preliminary heats will be show at www.usaswiming.org while the finals will be broadcast nightly on NBC.
> GRAPHIC: UB SWIMMERS AT THE U.S. OLYMPIC TRIALS
Brittney Kuras — 50 free, 100 free, 200 free, 200 IM
Mallory Morrell — 50 free
Alie Schirmers — 200 breaststroke
Matt Schwippert (Iroquois) — 100 backstroke, 200 backstroke
Matt Hogan — 50 free, 100 free, 200 free
Mike Dugan — 50 free, 100 free, 100 butterfly
Phil Aronica (Orchard Park) — 100 backstroke