Nothing captivates U.S. citizens like the national pride they experience when gold medals start pouring in for their country’s team as the Summer Olympic Games return to the screen.
Swimming is among the oldest events, having featured in every Summer Games since 1896. USA Swimming in particular has dominated the Summer Games over the past few decades, securing 257 gold medals overall — a whopping 178 medals ahead of runner-up Australia.
But before the fanfare of host cities like Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro and London, USA Swimming’s dominance actually has more humble origins in the American Midwest.
When the cycle of the Summer Games reaches an Olympic year, USA Swimming must select athletes to represent the country at the international level. The governing body publishes a set of time standards for athletes across the U.S. to attend the Olympic trials: If an athlete reaches these qualifying times, then they are eligible to compete at the swim meet, where the team will be decided and where the American swimming delegation to the Olympics will unite for the first time in that Games’ cycle. Qualifying for the Olympic trials will be the peak of many swimmers’ careers, as only 26 swimmers of each gender are selected to compete in the Olympic Games.
Over the past 10 Summer Olympics, the trials have occurred in the Midwest eight times. With Austin, Texas, and Long Beach, California being one-off exceptions, Indianapolis, Indiana, was a consistent host for the trials before they found a home in Omaha, Nebraska, for the last four Games.
In 2023, USA Swimming announced their 2024 return to Indianapolis from June 15-23. For one of the most important competitions for Olympic Team USA, the decision is a crucial one — so why is Indianapolis — and the unassuming Midwest overall — such a good fit?
Jake Grosser, the senior director of marketing and communications at USA Swimming, said that Midwestern cities have a monopoly on the Olympic trials due to accessibility.
“25% of [USA Swimming’s] membership lives within an eight-hour drive of Indianapolis, eliminating the need to fly,” Grosser said. “And then if you expand that a little bit further, you get to 50% of our membership pretty quickly that have really easy access to Indianapolis.”
Easy access to the Olympic trials is important not just for the competitors, but also for other swimmers interested in supporting them. A large percentage of USA Swimming’s fanbase is its members, so ensuring accessibility for wider membership is a factor in determining the host city.
“While there’s certainly ticket prices, the flights into Indianapolis are more numerous and are often cheaper than they are to other parts of the country,” Grosser said.
Indianapolis International Airport ranks a healthy 46th of 141 airports analyzed for affordability. As the reigning “best midsize airport” in the U.S., it also recently broke its own passenger traffic record after accumulating 4.7 million passengers in the first six months of 2023.
“We also specifically work within Indianapolis because the city is designed for hosting these type of major events,” Grosser said. “[That] gives us the opportunity to really leverage that as part of our event.”
The city’s infrastructure is another draw for sports event planners, with stadiums and convention spaces, as well as hotels and hospitality ready to support tens of thousands of visitors. Accessibility is a big draw, too — Indianapolis’ unique walkable infrastructure includes a climate-controlled skywalk system, connecting hotels and event spaces in the downtown area.
“The interconnectivity and accessibility of all the hotels in the area — allowing for walking over to the stadium — makes it a really appealing city to be a part of,” Grosser said.
Indianapolis has been known to host important sports events including Final Fours, Big 10 Football Championship games and even the 2012 Super Bowl. Many of these events take place in the Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts, which will also be home for the upcoming Olympic swimming trials.
The stadium affords a twofold scale-up for the event when compared to previous swimming trial venues. In USA Swimming’s mock venue design, they plan to have two 50-meter pools constructed on the stadium floor — one for competition and the other for warm-up and cool-down — where previous trials had only one. Construction of the pools will begin in May 2024.
Spectator capacity will also sky-rocket, as up to 30,000 fans will be able to attend: a considerable uptick from the usual attendance of around 17,000 at Omaha’s CHI Health Center. Fortunately, according to Tripadvisor, there are more than 20 hotels within half a mile of the Lucas Oil Stadium.
The whole trial event runs for nine days, with 17 total sessions — but the event is more than just the competition hours, and there are attractions to the Olympic trials outside of the pools.
“There’s so much more that goes into the nine days of Olympic trials,” Grosser said, “[such as] our fan experience in the Toyota Aqua Zone, which will be held in the convention center directly adjacent to Lucas Oil Stadium.”
The Toyota Aqua Zone is an interactive fan exhibit with various activities for spectators. Organizers of the event also hope that spectators will spend time engaging with the city, too.
The trials are run in partnership with the Indiana Sports Corp, a non-profit organization that seeks to increase investment into the local economy and drive growth by helping Indianapolis put on major sporting events.
They not only promote “Hoosier hospitality” to potential event hosts, but also establish benefits for the city itself. For example, USA Swimming and the Indiana Sports Corp are committing $400,000 to legacy projects which aim to teach water safety to children in underserved areas of the Indianapolis region. Initiatives like these ensure the event has a lasting impact, even when the trials have concluded.
After June, the athletes that move on from the Olympic trials will head to Paris to represent the United States. And while most of America will only tune in for Summer Olympic swimming, the road to that moment begins in Indianapolis.