You can smell the chlorine before you even step on the deck of Spieker Aquatics Center. The potent smell wafts over you well before you walk toward the grandstands by the pool, a captivating mix of sterility, purity and pure, water-muted athleticism.
Only a select few people at Cal recognize that smell outside Haas Pavilion, and most of them are in Omaha right now, either competing or cheering on the past, present and future members of the Cal swim team. A few dozen men and women wearing Cal caps have made their way to the Trials in the heat of America’s heartland. Only a handful will go on to London.
A swim meet is one of those sporting events you appreciate more in person and the most at the highest level. The concept is simple enough: a bunch of muscular Speedo-clad men or women line up by a pool, race to the other side and back, and you cheer for the ones wearing the caps and goggles that correspond to whatever team you’re supposed to cheer for, hoping they reach the finish line first.
In Omaha, those caps are Cal caps — some combination of blue, gold and white, usually with the script Cal spelled out prominently on the side. The men and women wearing those caps aren’t all Cal students, but many of them are old swimmers, paying tribute to their old school through mesmerizing swims even as they move into their professional swim careers.
The whistling, punctuated in stride with the swimmers as they lift their heads above water, is deafening. The loudspeaker at Spieker, which can be heard way down Bancroft, echoes around the south campus. The fans, a small pack of devoted parents, roommates and significant others, make their presence heard every time. These small throngs of fans scream with feverish intensity as their Bears weave through the water. At the end of each race, the swimmers look up, remove their Cal caps, and stare into the stands, which can hold a lot more people than they usually do.
The USA Olympic Trials this week just confirmed what we already know: that more world-class swimmers assemble at Cal than any other college in the world. The New York Yankees of college swimming have assembled a dynasty to rival any team in any sport. The back-to-back NCAA team titles both the men’s and women’s teams have won are just the tip of the iceberg. The numerous Olympians produced by the school are testament to the program’s allure to young athletes. If the past week is any indication, there’s quite as much to look forward to as there is to look back on.
The draw of amateur athletics is seeing athletes compete at the highest level before they move on to the pros. As you watch this array of talented Cal swimmers on national television, on the greatest stage short of London, it becomes clear just how much it means this trip to Omaha means to these swimmers. The stuff that goes on in the pool really does matter.
It’s a shame the capacity crowd at Omaha’s CenturyLink Center so dwarfs the typical Cal crowds at Spieker. If the school continues to produce gold medalists at the rate it has in years past, you’re looking at a lot of blue and gold on the podium in London. And maybe, down the road, a few more whistling fans in the stands.