Merely 25 minutes removed from the best she’s felt with a swim in a decade, Amanda Weir was in tears at Olympic Aquatics Stadium.
The 30-year-old, fresh off Saturday’s 400-meter freestyle relay qualifying in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, had just finished an impressive opening leg of the relay. She helped the Americans to second place in qualifying behind the heavily favored Australians, then headed to the warm-down pool satisfied that she had secured her spot on the relay later in the evening for the finals.
On paper, it seemed she had. Most observers assumed the same.
The Brookwood High grad and longtime SwimAtlanta athlete posted a trio of her best 100 free swims at U.S. Olympic Trials and added a good prelims swim in her opening Olympic event, one she happens to hold the American record in. The U.S. coaching staff and national team director Frank Busch felt differently and replaced Weir on the finals relay with top butterflyer Dana Vollmer.
It made even less sense to many because Vollmer finished behind Weir in all three 100 free swims at U.S. Olympic Trials, including a sixth-place finish in the finals to Weir’s third in the 100 free finals.
“I was really, really surprised (Weir) wasn’t on the relay,” said U.S. swimmer Natalie Coughlin, a three-time Olympian and 12-time Olympic medal-winner who was a teammate of Weir in the 2004 and 2012 Games. “And this is in no way disparaging the people who were on the relay. The four girls who were on the night relay did a fantastic job and got a silver medal. Relays are always a really touchy subject because they are at the coaches’ discretion. Nothing in our swimming by-laws says that if you’re in this place at Trials you are on the night relay. There’s really nothing like that.
“However, Amanda’s entire season has clearly showed she earned that spot. The prelims, the semifinals and the finals at Olympic Trials, her leadoff swim (in the Olympics) were consistently fast and should have got her that spot. … I was texting with her and just assumed she was on the night relay. There was no doubt in my mind. As someone who’s been there and knows the process, Amanda earned that spot and proved her worth. And she’s someone who’s been there numerous times and has that experience. She won her first (Olympic) medal in 2004 alongside me in Athens.”
Coughlin, as others have, pointed to Weir’s Saturday qualifying swim in the 400 free relay as even more evidence. She swam 53.60 on the first leg, but that time is adjusted by 0.6 to 0.7 seconds to match the other three legs of the relay, trimming it to more like 53.00 or 52.90. The adjustment is made because of the reaction time it takes a leadoff swimmer to start after the starting horn sounds and the flat start that swimmer faces instead of a moving relay start.
Weir definitely was pleased with her relay swim and was eager to go much faster in the evening, giving her a chance to return to the Olympic podium later that evening. But head women’s coach David Marsh and Busch broke the news she had been replaced moments after her prelim swim, which turned out to be her only one in Rio.
“I was shocked,” Weir said. “I immediately started crying. I was so mad and upset because I really was shocked. I thought if I had gone 54 (seconds) flat or even 54 high, they may put Dana on (the relay), but not with my season best and not being faster than I did at Trials. I was emotional for sure, not angry or disrespectful. That’s not how I operate. … It took awhile to put the pieces together and I still don’t have that much information on (the coaches’) thought process. If you put it down on paper, I can’t make any sense of it.”
How the situation transpired riled Weir as much as anything.
No coach approached her after the relay. Nobody asked how she felt. She was left to herself until the coaches broke the meeting with their decision.
“It made me think there’s one of two things going on here,” Weir said. “One was after the prelims session and maybe Australia didn’t have as great of a race as we thought they were going to. Going into the meet, that was the biggest challenge and on paper we were going to be fighting just to get any medal. After Australia’s swim, maybe they got that taste of gold. If we have the swims of our life, maybe it can happen. I worry that the taste for gold clouded the decisions of the people in charge at the expense of the integrity of our Olympic Trials and why our sport is fair. And with the way everything happened was odd. Nobody came down to my warm-down pool. Normally a coach would come over to me and speak about my race. … None of that happened.
“I never got any feedback from coaches. All eight of them went into a huddle, plus the national team director, and talked for 25 minutes. They never asked me how I felt, if I could go faster. Of course I would have said yes because it was the best-feeling swim I’ve had in 10 years. It makes me think it was already decided a long time ago the way it happened.”
The shuffled relay happened because of the addition of superstar Katie Ledecky, who normally swims longer distances, to the morning prelims session. Ledecky wasn’t in the 400 free relay mix of six swimmers because she was seventh in the 100 free at Trials, but adding a female version of Michael Phelps to the relay made sense. Weir, Coughlin and others don’t dispute that, and Ledecky clearly proved her worth in qualifying and in the finals.
The head-scratching decision involved the addition of Vollmer, who has the feel-good story of pursuing gold after giving birth. The 28-year-old’s selection to the relays was more questionable because she had roughly an hour after swimming butterfly qualifying before the 400 free relay finals. She also had butterfly finals the next day.
Meanwhile, three-time Olympian Weir had no evening swim other than her leg of the 400 free relay.
“I’ve been (a USA Swimming coach) on international trips and I’ve had to make decisions like this,” Weir’s longtime SwimAtlanta coach Chris Davis said. “I don’t think there’s any way in my mind I could rationalize that. There are tough decisions you face but this shouldn’t have been one of them. I’m about zero controversy, middle of the road, take the high road and Amanda is, too.
“I say this not because Amanda’s my daughter-in-law and not because I’ve coached her since she was 12 years old, but I’d say this for anybody in this situation because I know how hard they work. To swim great four times in a row (at Trials and the Olympics) to get your teeth kicked in is tough. … It’s the coaches’ decision, but as a human being I don’t know how you can do something like that. There are times in life we’re all faced with doing the right thing. People do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. I don’t think the head coach in that instance, David Marsh, chose that path. I think he was more interested in medal counts on his watch as the head coach than he was with doing the right thing.”
The end result of the decision likely didn’t change anything for the U.S. in the 400 free relay finals — the foursome finished 1.24 seconds behind the Australians. Even if Weir ripped off a swim she’s capable of, at or below her American record of 53.01, the Americans probably still finish behind the Aussies.
What it did change was the fortune of the two swimmers involved.
The four U.S. relay swimmers from the evening final paraded to the medal stand, in their specially designed podium uniforms, for photos and recognition from the crowd. It was a spot Weir, the oldest female on the U.S. team, longed to be in, making it her mission since the 2012 London Olympics.
Instead, it was Vollmer in the spotlight. She earned a silver medal, as did Weir for her role in qualifying, but Vollmer’s came publicly. Weir, Allison Schmitt and Lia Neal — the relay’s swimmers in the morning session — received their silvers in a private ceremony later. That medal, along with being a part of an American record relay, likely earned a professional swimmer like Vollmer $15,000 to $20,000 in incentive bonuses, Davis said.
At the Daily Post’s request, USA Swimming issued a statement on Weir being bumped from the relay in favor of Vollmer, who happens to be Weir’s roommate in Rio.
“Relay decisions are the most difficult decisions, and Amanda’s prelim swim made the decision even tougher,” the statement, from Busch, read. “The decisions are made by eight coaches and myself, and all information available is put out for the coaches to examine. We take a look at performances, as well as information from our high performance staff, to put together the lineup we feel will best put us in position to win a medal. Amanda had a great prelim swim, and her performance played a key role in Team USA earning that silver medal.”
The statement, much like explanations Weir got from Marsh and Busch, didn’t offer her much insight into the decision-making process. It didn’t discuss what “all information available” is, though the average sports fan would assume that the obvious information is from Olympic Trials. They likely would be just as puzzled that the third-place 100 free finisher at Olympic Trials and the American record-holder was replaced by the sixth-place finisher.
But those involved deeply in the sport, even members of Weir’s Olympic team, also found the decision off base. Coughlin, currently doing Olympic TV coverage for NBC, said she was surprised, but didn’t think it was unusual for the coaches not to talk with Weir after the relay.
In past years, that has happened, but not recently.
“Not as of late (the coaches haven’t talked to athletes after swims),” Coughlin said. “The procedure needs to change honestly. They forget we’re human beings with emotions sometimes. Amanda had a phenomenal swim. I think she handled herself really well. She’s a classy competitor. I really, truly believe Amanda should have been on that night relay. Again, that’s not to disparage anyone on that night relay. They did a phenomenal job. I just think Amanda did everything in her power to help Team USA and she earned that spot in the night final.”
The whole process soured what should have been a completely enjoyable trip for Weir, who before the Olympics had said she planned to continue swimming after Rio.
“I haven’t talked to Amanda about (her future) yet, but I think for any athlete to have that happen to them it’s got to take some of your heart away,” Davis said. “Amanda worked extremely hard the past two years to get where she was six or seven years ago. To do everything the right way, by the rules designed by United States swimming, and have it ripped away from you arbitrarily by a coaching staff for whatever reason they conjured up is sad. As human beings, we can rationalize anything. You can rationalize it enough to where you finally believe it.
“I think the prime motive was to get Ledecky on the morning relay to see how fast she could go. You’d be an idiot not to do that. But to take a person who did well and replace her with someone who was three slots below her at Olympic Trials when there’s no empirical evidence to do so is egregious. Why even have Olympic Trials?”
As frustrated as she is, Weir plans to stay in Brazil through closing ceremonies and cheer the U.S. on in other sports. She still relishes in the success of her friends on the swimming team, too, cheering them on in the stands.
She isn’t completely sure where her swimming career stands in the future, but isn’t giving up just yet.
“(The disappointment) does (make you consider retiring), but there is so much positive I can take out of my season this summer,” Weir said. “You can at least put me down for another year. It would not be good for me (mentally) to put away my suit right now. I need to keep that routine. … I’m definitely a little discouraged because stuff like this can happen. On the other hand, I’m a fighter. If I fought back for 10 years to be a player on a relay team for us, this kind of makes me want to work that much harder. But it’s been an emotional couple of days for sure.”