Swimmers dive into the pool at the start of the women's 400-meter individual… (Frederic J. Brown / AFP/Getty…)
OMAHA — For every Michael Phelps or Missy Franklin, there are dozens of Shelby Webbers, the swimmers who pack preliminary heats with no chance to make the Olympic team.
Of the roughly 1,850 swimmers entered in the Olympic trials, about 50 will qualify for the U.S. team. Webber was one of 162 swimmers competing Tuesday in the women's 100-meter backstroke, with two Olympic spots available.
She finished 153rd overall, last in one of 17 preliminary heats. She spent barely one minute in the pool, and her trials were over.
"It's still worth it," said Webber, who lives in Huntington Beach and plans to swim for the University of Texas next year. Her mother, father, brother and aunt joined her in Omaha.
"It's so cool," she said. "It's so different than any other meet. It's so big — the lights, the music, all the stuff to do. It's only one event, but I had to come because I made it."
With more than a thousand other swimmers sharing that feeling, the schedule grew so crowded Monday that a public address announcer congratulated Olympian Elizabeth Beisel on "a great morning swim" that took place at 2:12 p.m.
Frank Busch, the U.S. Swimming national team director, said the qualifying times for the next trials would be tightened, but probably not to the point at which fewer than 1,000 swimmers would qualify.
"Maybe the most significant numbers here are the people that actually don't make the Olympics. It's kind of like your alumni base," Busch said.
He added: "Not everybody is going to be the cleanup batter. Not everybody is going to be the best pitcher. Does that mean you shouldn't try out for the sport?"
In the 1988 Olympics, Janet Evans won gold in the women's 400 freestyle, one of four career gold medals. She pursued an improbable comeback for this year's Olympic trials, and she finished 80th among 113 swimmers in the event in Tuesday's qualifying heats. The top 16 advanced to the semifinals; Evans left with a warm ovation from the crowd.
"I was actually more nervous than ever," she said. "It is such a different situation because when I swam at trials and meets before, I knew I would at least be in the finals, or maybe win or get second.
"It was a very different mental game for me, just swimming to swim. I am so used to swimming for a purpose. Just to be here to enjoy it was very different emotionally for me."
Evans is set to swim the 800 freestyle Saturday, with virtually no chance of advancing past the qualifying heats. Perhaps she will line up then as she lined up Tuesday, a 40-year-old woman with a 17-year-old in the next lane.
"Closer to my kid's age than my age," she said, smiling.
Amanda Beard, in search of her fifth consecutive Olympic berth, did not qualify for Wednesday's finals in the 100 breaststroke. She has a better chance in the 200 backstroke later in the week, but she also has the perspective of a 30-year-old woman in a pool surrounded by teenagers.
"This isn't my life," she said. "I won't be too devastated if I walk away saying I competed in my fifth Olympic trials and go on a nice vacation with my family."
Picking his spots
Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps are set for their second showdown Wednesday night, in the 200 freestyle. Lochte posted the second-fastest time in qualifying heats for the 100 backstroke, then withdrew from that event. He would otherwise have had to swim the two events in semifinals Tuesday night and finals Wednesday.
"This isn't about how many we can swim, but about how many we can swim really well," said Lochte's coach, Gregg Troy.