ATLANTA – Team USA swimmers are all night owls now to get accustomed to the schedule they’ll face at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
They were been instructed not to go to sleep until 1 or 2 a.m. during training camp, with some practices starting at 10 or 11 p.m.
Some of their fans, however, are morning people to the extreme. They started to line up at 5 a.m. Saturday to get one of the 1,500 armbands that would let them watch the 11 a.m. open practice session.
“I think it’s crazy and I think it’s awesome,” said Gunnar Bentz, an Atlanta native who made his first Olympic team in the 800-meter freestyle relay.
Competition in Rio begins in four days, with preliminaries at 1 p.m. and finals at 10 p.m. local time.
“The mood right now is so elevated,” said 100-meter backstroker Olivia Smoliga.
During the training session, fans watched the Team USA swimmers take starts and paddle down the length of the pool with kickboards and even snorkels. Just like normal folks, the Olympians had lifeguards, too.
The crowd also was treated to a race between two 4×100-meter relays that included Michael Phelps, who waved his arms from the pool deck, exhorting them to cheer. Team USA coaches reported that both relay teams finished with times faster than Team USA swam at the 2015 world championships in Kazan, Russia, and men’s team head coach Bob Bowman said Phelps swam his fastest unshaved time.
Athletes signed autographs and took selfies with giddy fans, the athlete standing on the pool deck holding the camera and the fans above them in the stands.
“It means a lot to us that people care about what we’re doing,” said Chase Kalisz, who will swim the 400-meter individual medley in Rio.
Team USA had its first training camp in San Antonio and then moved to Atlanta. The pool, which is now part of the Georgia Tech Campus Recreation Center, still has some reminders of its heyday as the 1996 Olympic aquatic venue.
“To be able to practice here and look up at the scoreboard and see those Olympic rings, it’s definitely inspiring,” said three-time Olympian Allison Schmitt, who won five medals in London four years ago, including three golds, and will be a relay swimmer in Rio.
While workouts are first and foremost on the training camp agenda, team bonding is also crucial to a successful Olympic Games.
“It’s all about the memories and the friendships we have,” said Schmitt, one of six team captains. “A happy swimmer is always a fast swimmer, so it’s been fun to get to know the rookies on this team and mesh as one. Because when we go to the Olympics, we’re Team USA. We’re not individual swimmers.”
Schmitt said she and the other team captains — Elizabeth Beisel, Cammile Adams, Phelps, Anthony Ervin and Nathan Adrian — are “always here for questions. We fill them in before they even ask questions. We stand up in team meetings and tell them what to expect and tell them we’re there for them no matter what. Because we’ve already gone through it a few times, a special part is knowing that the little ones look up to you.”
At age 30, Amanda Weir is the oldest swimmer on the women’s side.
“It’s been really cool watching all the younger swimmers come together,” Weir said. “I think this time there are more rookies than I’ve ever experienced before, so it has been very different and exciting. Everything’s new for them and it kind of makes everything new for us, too.”
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Among the 47 swimmers, 31 are making their first trip to the Olympic Games.
Weir said her best tip for the newbies is: “Stick with your plan. Don’t get wrapped up in anything.”
Bowman said he hasn’t noticed much difference in having so many first-timers, “because they have to be pretty good to get through our trials. They have to know what they’re doing and they have to be good under pressure. Where they’re going to learn a lot is when we get to the Olympic Village and everything’s new. They’ll figure out in the first couple of days how to negotiate everything and that’s where the older guys will help them with that. In general, the swimming part has been great for everybody.”
For a young swimmer like Bentz, training camp gives him a chance to swim alongside Phelps, who made a record fifth Olympic team for a U.S. male swimmer and is a legend in the sport.
“You look up to these guys your whole life and now you’re training with them,” Bentz said. “Just today I did a set with Connor Jaeger and he’s just incredible. Training alongside him and Michael and Conor Dwyer, it really pumps you up.
“Being one of the new kids, it seems like it would be kind of hard, but they make it really easy. They make it a really good transition.”
Bentz said he has learned just by watching Phelps.
“He’s laser focused,” Bentz said. “He knows what he needs to do and he knows exactly how to do it. He’s been doing this for so long, It’s just great getting tips and tricks from him and watching his demeanor and what he does on deck is just incredibly helpful.”
David Marsh, the head women’s coach, said the veterans began taking on a leadership role as soon as the team was selected in Omaha at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
“It’s been a beautiful camp so far,” Marsh said. “The captains are leading it well, very relaxed, nothing having to be contrived here to create things. We played a little bonding game the first day. It was supposed to be 5 minutes and it ended up about 35 minutes. They went several rounds instead of going once. They’re just having fun together.
“Although I think everybody’s ready to get down to Rio and get down to business.”