For the 11 divers set to represent the United States at the Summer Olympics next month in Athens, the Speedo National Championships beginning today at the Mission Viejo Aquatic Center will serve as a dress rehearsal.
Of the approximately 100 others scheduled to compete through Sunday, nobody came closer to joining the Olympic qualifiers than 14-year-old Thomas Finchum of Indianapolis.
Finchum missed qualifying for the team by one spot last month at the U.S. trials in St. Peters, Mo.
His second-place finish in the 10-meter platform competition would have earned him an Olympic berth in previous years. But USA Diving, in an effort to rebound from dismal U.S. performances during the last three Olympic Games, tweaked the qualifying format, which eliminated a guaranteed berth for the platform runner-up.
The new qualifying format was instituted to strengthen the synchronized diving teams, an event that made its debut at the 2000 Sydney Games. During the trials four years ago, the U.S. chose its synchronized teams from the pool of qualifiers in the individual events. However, meet organizers decided to open the trials this year with the synchronized events, which feature two divers performing choreographed maneuvers from adjacent platforms or springboards, and award berths to the winning tandems.
USA Diving also decided to reward a member of the winning synchronized platform team with one of two berths in the individual platform competition. That berth went to the teammate that finished higher in the individual platform. Even though Kyle Prandi, 25, of Strongsville, Ohio, finished third in the individual platform, one spot behind Finchum, Prandi was awarded the berth because he finished higher than his synchronized teammate, Mark Ruiz of Orlando.
Finchum, nicknamed "The Needle" by his counterparts because of his 5-foot-1, 85-pound frame that barely creates a splash upon entry, said he did not harbor any ill will toward the selection process.
"I'm not very upset," Finchum said Sunday night as he returned from winning his age group in the springboard event at a junior meet in Brown Deer, Wis. "I'm young."
Ventura native Troy Dumais, one of four returning Olympians on the team, finished fourth in synchronized springboard with David Pichler and sixth in the individual springboard at the 2000 Games. With just eight other countries entered in the synchronized diving events, Troy Dumais and his older brother, Justin, are expected to have the best shot among American divers at winning a medal.
Troy Dumais said he believes the new selection process only strengthened the overall team.
"If it put added pressure on people because there was only one spot available, then we need more of that mentality in this sport," said Dumais, who won the individual springboard at the trials and finished second with Justin in the synchronized springboard.
Dumais, 24, has grown up watching the U.S. freefall from the pinnacle of the sport. After combining for 18 Olympic medals during the 1976, '84 and '88 Games, American divers have won just six medals in the last three Olympics.
Those involved with the sport said the U.S. lacked centralized training facilities with top coaches and staff devoted to developing the nation's best divers. Since the 2000 Olympics, when American divers took home just one medal, state-of-the-art training centers opened in The Woodlands, Texas, and Indianapolis.
The Dumais brothers, along with U.S. team members Justin Wilcock, Laura Wilkinson and Kimiko Hirai Soldati, train full time in The Woodlands.
The centers also provide experts in nutrition, exercise and medicine. Troy Dumais, who said he has only returned home to Ventura twice in the last four years, said he expects better results will begin to show next month.
"We're going to do better than we've done in recent Olympics," he said.
Finchum, meanwhile, is looking forward to performing well this week. He'd be thrilled by his first national title and the chance to show the U.S. team what it will miss this summer.
"That's what I'm hoping for," he said.