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Olympic swimming trials get underway in Indianapolis as Chinese doping scandal grows

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The biggest competition in U.S. swimming is underway today in Indianapolis. More than a thousand athletes are going head to head for a spot on the American team that will travel to the Summer Olympics next month in Paris. And there's big drama in the water but also a dark cloud hanging over the sport - new allegations of doping by Chinese swimmers who are expected to compete in Paris. NPR's Brian Mann is in the middle of it all in Indianapolis. Hey, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: So we'll get to the fun stuff in the competition in a second. But we need to start with these new revelations that some elite Chinese swimmers who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs were still allowed to compete. What's going on here, and what's the latest?

MANN: Yeah, that's right. So the World Anti-Doping Agency has confirmed that nearly two dozen top Chinese swimmers tested positive for a couple of different banned substances, not once but repeatedly in 2016, 2017 and again in 2021. This story was first reported by The New York Times, and these athletes were still allowed to compete in Tokyo. And these test results were kept secret until news started leaking out in the spring. American gold swimmer Lilly King was asked about this here in Indianapolis as she prepared to compete.

LILLY KING: It's extremely frustrating, I think, for the athletes just to always have in the back of our mind that maybe this sport's not fair.

MANN: And I should say, Scott, American officials say the U.S. drug testing regime here is incredibly strict. They say these swimming trials in Indianapolis will be drug free. But this international scandal, that's going to be waiting for these swimmers when they get to Paris.

DETROW: And I'm sure that story is going to keep developing between now and the Olympics, but let's talk about the U.S. trials right now. Let's just start with where you're at. I understand this is happening inside the NFL stadium. Like, describe the scene for us.

MANN: Yeah, it's super cool. I'm going to nerd out here and say that the crews spent three weeks building a massive swimming pool where the football field for the Indianapolis Colts normally sits. And they pumped in 2 million gallons of water from the White River that runs through Indianapolis. Here's what it sounded like while competitions were getting underway.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: ...Of the women's 100 butterfly...

MANN: A total of 28 events are unfolding here over nine days, and really big crowds are expected.

DETROW: Tell us how the competition is going to work.

MANN: It's make or break. It's dramatic. After preliminary heats, swimmers have to win first or second place in their events - finals to go to Paris or they go home. Athletes really describe the trials as being more high pressure than the Olympics. Here's Cody Miller. He's a 2016 bronze medalist in the breaststroke.

CODY MILLER: The gauntlet that is being successful at this meet, like, it's magic. And everyone that's standing on deck can feel it. And you can see it. And that doesn't exist anywhere else because of how coveted the spots the people are vying for on this team are.

MANN: More than a thousand athletes, Scott, have come here to Indianapolis, and fewer than 60 will go on to Paris. That's how tough it is.

DETROW: Wow. Let's talk a bit about those athletes. Some of the big names that we remember from past Olympics are certainly there. But fair to say that right now, USA Swimming is in more of a rebuilding phase?

MANN: Yeah. That's right. One huge name who will be competing here for a spot on the Paris team is freestyle swimmer Katie Ledecky. She's won seven Olympic gold medals, 10 Olympic medals overall starting back in the 2012 London Games. On the men's side, Caeleb Dressel is back. He won five gold medals at the last Summer Games in Tokyo.

But here's the thing, Scott - Ledecky and Dressel are both 27 years old. Ledecky just published a biography sort of looking back at her storied career. Dressel actually stepped away from swimming for a time in 2022 and 2023. So one big question here is whether these stars can peak one more time and post the kind of times that will match what we're seeing from Australia's really young, really strong team. The U.S. men's swimming coach, Anthony Nesty, was asked bluntly whether he thinks Caeleb Dressel is ready.

ANTHONY NESTY: He's improved dramatically from the fall and the spring. And, you know, he's in a good spot. This is a tough meet.

MANN: U.S. swim officials say there's a strong group of younger athletes not very well known who could emerge here in Indianapolis. One quick thing, though, Scott - Katie Ledecky did just compete a little while ago in her first preliminary race, the 400-meter freestyle. She looked as dominant as ever.

DETROW: Good to hear. That's NPR's Brian Mann in Indianapolis. He'll be part of our Olympic team traveling to Paris. Thanks, Brian.

MANN: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.
Scott Detrow
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.