U.S. swimming Olympic trials: Nine days reveal what Team USA will be capable of in Paris

USA Swimming began its 2024 Olympic trials in search of superstars. And over nine whirlwind, record-breaking, exhausting days in Indianapolis, several emerged — or, in some cases, re-emerged.

Katie Ledecky, of course, never left. She qualified for her fourth Olympics, in all four of her events. And other veterans, like Lilly King and Ryan Murphy, will return to a U.S. Olympic team that looks more familiar than ever before. (More on that below.)

But the story of the week was that a program coming off a disappointing 2023 world championships identified additional top-end talent that could carry it back to the top of the sport in Paris.

Here are five takeaways — and new names to know — from trials, which concluded Sunday with a 48-member swim team that should win plenty of medals at the 2024 Olympics in late July and early August.

Regan Smith entered 2020 and 2021 as a heavily hyped and prophesied star of those Olympics. The accompanying pressure crushed her, and left her without a gold medal. But over the past two years, she rebuilt her mind and her swimming. And this time around, she really is ready to wow at the Games.

With a third personal best in two months, she shattered the world record in the 100-meter backstroke at trials. She ultimately qualified in three events, and will be favored to win either gold or silver in both the 100 and 200 back. In fact, she was great in a fourth event, the 100-meter butterfly, as well, and would’ve qualified there if not for …

Gretchen Walsh was already a superstar — on the NCAA circuit, where pools are 25 meters long. In previous years, she’d struggled to translate that short-course success to the 50-meter Olympic pool (long course). But she worked on both her stroke and her confidence. In Indy, she broke through in a semifinal with a world record in the 100 fly.

On the final night of trials, Walsh also qualified in the 50-meter freestyle. She’ll swim those two events, plus the 4x100-meter freestyle relay in Paris.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - JUNE 22: Caeleb Dressel, left, and Thomas Heilman of the United States embrace after the Men's 100m butterfly final on Day Eight of the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials at Lucas Oil Stadium on June 22, 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Caeleb Dressel, left, and Thomas Heilman embrace after the Men's 100m butterfly final. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Dressel had been something of an enigma for nearly two years, ever since he pulled out of the 2022 world championships mid-meet. He took months away from swimming after that to prioritize his mental wellness, and to unpack why this sport that had made him a superstar was also making him so “miserable.” He returned in 2023, but didn’t qualify for that year’s worlds. As 2024 approached, nobody really knew what he’d be capable of or where his mind was.

Dressel answered those unknowns this past week. After finishing third in the 100-meter freestyle at trials, he won the 50 free and the 100 fly, and qualified in those individual events. Including the 4x100-meter free relay, he’ll get a chance to defend at least three of his five Tokyo gold medals in Paris.

And more importantly, though still a work in progress, his relationship with swimming is much healthier. “I am happy,” Dressel said Saturday after his last race of trials. “I am happy with a lot of my swims, and to be back to a place that I wanted to be with the sport is exceptional. I'm really proud of myself for that.”

Michael Phelps’ 2016 retirement left a void in men’s swimming. Dressel arrived just in time to fill it. But he’s no longer a one-man band. And one of the highlights of his week, he said, was watching a new generation of U.S. men flourish.

In the freestyle events, Chris Guiliano, 20, became the first U.S. man since Matt Biondi in 1988 to qualify in the 50, 100 and 200.

In the 100 and 200 fly, Thomas Heilman met the moment. At 17, he’ll be the youngest U.S. male swimmer at the Olympics since Phelps and Aaron Peirsol in 2000. Heilman, who has broken national age group records previously held by Phelps, has been hailed as a future star, but he could step into spotlight sooner than expected this summer.

And in the individual medleys, Carson Foster won both the 200 and 400 IM. A 22-year-old first-time Olympian who spoke last week about working with mental performance coaches since missing the team in 2021, Foster is one of the few men with an outside chance of challenging French phenom Léon Marchand in the medleys in Paris.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - JUNE 20: Katie Grimes of the United States competes in a preliminary heat of the Women's 200m backstroke on Day Six of the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials at Lucas Oil Stadium on June 20, 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Katie Grimes will take on a grueling Paris program: the 1500 free, the 400 IM and the 10-kilometer open water race on the River Seine. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

At each of the past three Olympics, in 2012, 2016 and 2021, the U.S. swim team featured 16 or 17 holdovers from the previous Games. The 2024 team will feature 23 holdovers. The uptick reflects broader trends in the sport — its increased professional opportunities allow more athletes to sustain careers past their early 20s — but it's also a product of the pandemic-induced postponement of the Tokyo Games.

In 2020, Katie Grimes was 14; Torri Huske was 17; Kate Douglass was 18; and at best, they were long-shots to make the Olympic team.

The following summer, they made it. And now, their experiences in Tokyo could propel them to stardom. Grimes, an endurance queen, will take on a grueling Paris program: the 1500 free, the 400 IM and the 10-kilometer open water race on the River Seine. Douglass, renowned for her versatility, will be a medal favorite in the 200 IM, the 200 breaststroke and the 100 freestyle (she won all three at trials). And Huske, who missed a medal by 0.01 seconds in Tokyo, will contend in the 100 free and 100 fly.

“My last Olympics will have really helped me going into this next one,” Huske said. “When I first made it last time, I was kinda like, ‘Wow.’ That was kind of my whole goal, to just make the team. … Now, it's like, OK, I have this, and it's done, and now I can focus on the future, and my other goals [at the Olympics].”