Omaha, Nebraska
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Just Keep Swimming
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Just Keep Swimming

A family experiences the Olympic Swim Trials in Omaha, Nebraska

By Mike Watkins


I’ll admit it—long before the location for the 2020 Olympic Swim Trails was announced, I had my fingers crossed that Omaha would once again be chosen as the lucky host. I was eager to return, and I had even set a Google alert so that I was first to get the good news. I wasn’t the only one anxiously waiting to hear—my family had such an amazing time at the 2016 trials that it was all we had talked about for weeks. In fact, it was still one of our favorite family adventures to tell.

Click video to expand and see the Olympic pool build

Dive into the Olympics

Back in 2016, before we entered Omaha’s convention center and arena on the first day of the US Olympic Swim Trials, my then-8-year-old daughter, Janie, and 7-year-old son, Jeff—both budding swimmers—noticed and commented on the pictures of the many notable athletes on the doors and large banners. Favorites Katie Ledecky and Michael Phelps were featured on the front of the building.

“Look, Dad, it’s Katie,” Janie said. “I can’t wait to watch her swim. She’s my favorite.”

I couldn’t wait to see her compete, either. Ever since she won gold at the 2012 Olympics at just 15 years old, I’d been a big fan of hers as well. What talent!

“Look, Dad, it’s Katie,” Janie said. “I can’t wait to watch her swim. She’s my favorite.”

My kids and I had come to Omaha from Philadelphia with their swimming club. Dozens of under-10-year-olds and a large group of their parents shuffled these aquatic athletes through the chlorine-scented center; the energy was palpable.

I felt fortunate that we were able to get tickets that year. After all, for the first time in the history of Olympic Trials, every session—night and evening—was sold out. Needless to say, we were excited and ready to watch some fast swimming along with more than 200,000 other fans.

New visitors in Omaha

We had decided to come just a few weeks before the start of the event, so we chaperones/organizers were thankful that we were able to use many of the city’s tourism resources.

I knew that the tourism bureau worked with USA Swimming to create a special site for teams and fans looking to reserve their hotel rooms—it was such an easy process! The tourism bureau's guidance was fantastic for our family as individuals, too. We had never visited Omaha, so it was much appreciated when they provided help to secure hotel rooms and land transportation once we arrived at the airport.

Everyone at the tourism bureau (and everyone we encountered throughout the city) was incredibly helpful and kind to us. I could tell they loved welcoming visitors to Omaha; they were great about offering personalized recommendations, too.

They suggested some excellent restaurants in the Old Market, which is close to the arena. Our favorite was appropriately named for the weekend’s swimming events, Upstream Brewing Company. Janie and Jeff ordered big plates of pasta with garlic bread and salads—young swimmers have to carb up, after all! The kids had a blast, and the food was fantastic. I took advantage of being at a local brewery by ordering the O! Gold Light Lager, which was fresh, crisp and the perfect complement.

After eating, we took a leisurely stroll through the Old Market and downtown Omaha. Along the way, we noticed the fantastic job the city had done to celebrate and promote the Swim Trials being back for a third time in eight years (they were held in Omaha during the 2008, 2012 and 2016 trials).

The kids ran to the colorful cut-out SWIM letters on the corner of 10th and Farnam streets in front of the Visitors Center and insisted we take a family selfie with them. Larger-than-life posters featuring aquatic superstars mid-stroke were prominently displayed all around us. Omaha’s support and excitement for the eight-day event was clear in the exceptional efforts throughout the city.

Everyone we encountered throughout the city was incredibly helpful and kind to us.

“Dad, is that how we look in the water?” Jeff asked.

“No, buddy,” I said with a smile. “You and Janie both look a lot faster and stronger.” He beamed with pride.

We made it to several morning and evening sessions during the three days we were in Omaha for Swim Trials, and we—and the entire swimming club—had a fantastic time. While the morning swims were fun to watch, the evening semifinals and finals races—made even more spectacular and engaging by the lights, pyrotechnics, effects, entertainment and music—were definitely the highlights of the meet.

More Sports in Omaha

Calf-roping at the Aksarben Rodeo and Stock Show.
The Men's NCAA Basketball Tournament came to Omaha in 2018.
Jump into the action with The International, a world-class horse jumping competition.
Asics Presidents’ Day Classic is one of the country’s largest volleyball events.
The NCAA Men's College World Series is a huge hit with the fans.
The 2017 FEI World Cup Jumping and FEI Dressage Finals were in Omaha.

Meeting swim heroes

During both morning and evening sessions, Janie and Jeff were able to get close enough to the pool deck to get a few autographs. Janie got Ledecky’s signature on her program, and she said it was the greatest day of her life. I had no doubt it fueled my little swimmer to want to be on this same deck in the future.

“That was so cool!” Janie shouted as she showed me her new autograph. “I want to be just like her one day.”

At the same time, Jeff was able to take a fast-moving selfie of Nathan Adrian during one of the morning swims. He also managed to get an autograph from rising star Ryan Murphy—a fellow backstroker. Jeff was beside himself. He was so excited to get a form of acknowledgement from one of his sports idols.

“I can’t wait to watch Ryan swim at the Olympics on TV,” Jeff said. “I hope he wins gold in both backstroke events.”

While the kids enjoyed personal motivation as young swimmers, I had my own metamorphosis as a proud parent watching my children learn about themselves as young people and athletes.

Let’s do it again

Once Omaha was officially picked as the location for the 2020 Olympic Swim Trials, I let out a little sigh of relief. While I suspect that another place would have been just fine, my family—as well as their club teammates and families—all genuinely hoped that it might return to Omaha.

Omaha’s central location is great, and its proximity to the airport can’t be beaten. The ease of getting around the city to our hotel and to fantastic restaurants, shops, museums and other attractions (we didn’t make it to the world-class Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium last time, but we’re excited to explore it this time around) make this an ideal spot for an event like this. I couldn’t imagine a city that would be better able to host such an extraordinary sports event.

Being from the East Coast, I had been excited to explore Omaha for the first time—and I ended up being incredibly impressed. This is a thriving, energetic metropolitan city with some of the most genuine, helpful people I’ve ever encountered. We can’t wait to go back in 2020—it’s truly a family favorite.

TD Ameritrade ParkThe TD Ameritrade Park features a 360-degree walk-around concourse for incredible views of all the action on the field.Learn More
Baxter ArenaBaxter Arena is the home of Omaha Mavericks hockey, basketball and volleyball teams, and seats up to 7,500 cheering fans.Learn More
Ralston ArenaSeating up to 4,400 and located right in the heart of Omaha, Ralston Arena hosts sports, concerts, conventions, tradeshows and events.Learn More
Morrison StadiumHome to the Creighton University Bluejays men’s and women’s soccer teams, Morrison Stadium can welcome up to 7,500 fans at each match. The Field Turf Revolution all-weather surface is the first of its kind in the United States and makes the playing surface at the facility one of the finest in the country.Learn More
Moylan Tranquility Ice PlexOmaha’s home for ice sports, Moylan Tranquility Ice Plex is the city’s largest ice skating facility and hosts public skating, classes and parties.Learn More
Union Bank & Trust Sports Complexhome to Omaha Sports Academy and Nebraska Elite Volleyball. Features include eight volleyball courts and six basketball courts, all with HD digital Scorevision scoreboards.Learn More