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Why Minnesota is the center of the swimming world — at least for a weekend

Aquatic Center
University of Minnesota
USA Swimming national event director Dean Ekeren said the Aquatic Center is the only venue in the Upper Midwest large enough to handle a major championship like this.

One thing to remember about this weekend’s Arena Pro Swim Series meet at the University of Minnesota: Star-gazing is part of the deal. And not just for spectators.

“Pro” means “Big Time.” Formerly known as the Minnesota Grand Prix, this is the first major swim meet of the 2016 Olympic cycle, attracting former and future Olympians from all over. Michael Phelps is here. So are fellow Olympic gold medalists Missy Franklin, Katie Ledecky and Eden Prairie’s Rachel Bootsma; at least six more Olympic medalists; and dozens of Olympic hopefuls.

So for someone like Minnesota sophomore Brooke Zeiger — an All-American, Big Ten champion and school record-holder in the 400-meter individual medley — the chances of jumping in the pool alongside Franklin, Ledecky or two-time Olympian Elizabeth Beisel in a 400 IM heat are pretty good. Maybe scary good.

“It definitely is intimidating,” said Zeiger, who owns the 14th-fastest seed time of 4 minutes, 46.05 seconds. “But it’s exciting. You can take pride in yourself: I’ve gotten to a level where I can compete with these guys and race them. They’re so talented and they’ve achieved so much. It’s exciting to look at yourself and say, wow, I’m right next to this person. How cool is that?”

This actually happened to Zeiger already. At a Grand Prix in Charlotte, N.C., Zeiger walked out for a freestyle consolation final to discover triple Olympic gold medalist Allison Schmitt in the next lane. “I was like, oh my God,” Zeiger said. “She’s been to the Olympics multiple times, and I was getting ready to race her? It was so exciting.”

Even Phelps himself experienced it, long ago. At a press briefing Wednesday, Phelps recalled being awestruck at his first Senior Nationals here in 1999, distracted by the likes of Tom Dolan and Tom Malchow, a Minnesotan, walking the pool deck. Then 14, Phelps finished last in a 200 butterfly heat and 41st overall in the 400 IM. He qualified for his first Olympics the following year.

About 600 swimmers are expected for this meet, the first of a seven-event pro tour that finishes in early June, three weeks before the Olympic Trials in Omaha. Competition runs Thursday through Saturday, with morning preliminaries at 9 a.m. and finals at 6 p.m. Limited single session tickets, available at the door, are $15 ($5 for children under 8). Phelps is scheduled to swim all three days, six events in all.

USA Swimming national event director Dean Ekeren said the Aquatic Center is the only venue in the Upper Midwest large enough to handle a major championship like this. Built in 1990 on the site of old Memorial Stadium, the eight-lane, Olympic-sized pool (50 meters end to end) has hosted six NCAA and nine Big Ten Championships, plus two USA Swimming nationals. The first Grand Prix was held here in 2008.

“Minnesota also has a very strong swimming community, Minneapolis especially,” Ekeren said in a telephone interview from USA Swimming headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “They have great people at the University of Minnesota who take care of the facility and know how to run big events. The fans know good swimming and they always put on a good show for us.” 

The Aquatic Center is long yet intimate, seating about 1,500, with one of the largest video display boards in the United States. Outfitted with modern technology that minimizes subtle currents and wave resistance, it’s known as a “fast pool.” That also attracts the big names.  Phelps and 11-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte raced previous Grand Prix here, and Franklin swam in the 2014 NCAA Championships for Cal-Berkeley.

And when a Phelps or a Lochte makes the turn for home, get ready for big noise.

Michael Phelps
REUTERS/Jeff Haynes
Michael Phelps is scheduled to swim all three days, six events in all.

“In my opinion, it’s the most exciting aquatics venue in the country when it’s packed,” said Linda McKee, Minnesota’s associate director of aquatics, who formerly ran the pool at the University of Michigan.

Minnesota swim coach Kelly Kremer said the setup, with seating on both sides, creates a hard-to-match cacophony. “A lot of the pools that have been built since this one, they have one-side seating,” Kremer said. “No matter how many seats you put on one side, it just isn’t coming from all angles when you’re an athlete and you’re in the middle of it. It’s loud. People — when they have a chance to watch the heroes of our sport and see them live, it’s electric. It’s great.”

Competitive swimming is big in Minnesota, probably bigger than you think. USA Swimming lists 7,903 swimmers on clubs statewide, 12th-highest among the 59 local swimming committees it tracks. Southern California leads with 17,388. Twenty-five of the 72 Gopher swimmers and divers are Minnesotans. (Zeiger, whose older sister Blake swam for the Gophers, is from Cumberland, R.I.).

Don’t expect to see world records this weekend – it’s too early – but the competition should be intense.

Phelps, winner of 18 golds and 22 Olympic medals, claimed he was finished swimming after the 2012 Games in London, but his “retirement” lasted less than two years. At 30, he may have something left. Three months ago, after serving a USA Swimming-imposed six-month suspension for a DUI arrest, Phelps won golds in the 100 and 200-meter butterfly and 200 individual medley at the U.S. Nationals in San Antonio.

Ledecky looms as the brightest American star going to Rio. A surprise gold medalist in 2012 as a 15-year-old, Ledecky won the 800-meter freestyle while breaking Janet Evans’ American record that stood for 23 years. Since London, Ledecky won nine world championship gold medals and set world records in the 400, 800 and 1,500 freestyles. Ledecky figures to make the same kind of splash as Franklin, who won four golds and a bronze in London.

Locally, former Gopher David Plummer leads a sizable group of present and former Minnesota swimmers. Now 30, Plummer was one of the heartbreaking stories of the 2012 Olympic Trials, missing the team by .12 of a second in the 100 backstroke. Living in Minneapolis with Kremer coaching him, Plummer ranks third in the world in the 100 back (he’s the top American) and 6th in the 50 back, where two-time Olympian Matt Grevers is the only American ahead of him. 

If you go, get there early. Friday night sets up as a traffic and parking nightmare, with a Gopher men’s and women’s basketball doubleheader at 5:30 p.m. and women’s hockey at 7 p.m. Star-gazing is OK, and earplugs might not be a bad idea. 

“It gets pretty loud for finals, especially when someone like Michael Phelps gets up,” Zeiger said. “They’ll announce each name, and when they say his name, the crowd just goes like crazy, screaming. It’s fun, especially when races are close.”

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