AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
LOS ANGELES: As the 100-day countdown to the 2012 Olympic Games begins, all eyes are on London, but America's top contenders can't afford to look beyond the US trials looming in June.
Michael Phelps owns 14 Olympic gold medals and electrified the Water Cube in Beijing by winning an unprecedented eight gold medals at one Games.
But the superstar will line up alongside the rest of the London hopefuls at the swimming trials at Omaha, Nebraska, June 25-July 2, where the top two finishers in each event, plus a handful of other swimmers with a shot at relay berths, will be selected.
"The Olympics are probably easier for us than trials are," Phelps said of the challenge. "Just being able to secure a spot is so important.
"It is only the top two. We know that anybody can be there on a given day and all these guys that we have can race hard, so you really have to be prepared during the trials, and if you're not, you're not going to make the team."
US athletes face a similarly rigorous test, and plenty of outstanding athletes have seen their Olympic dreams undone at the trials, where a top-three finish is a ticket to the Games.
"It's one of those things -- there's years that I love it and years that I hate it," former pole vaulter Jeff Hartwig said of the system.
Hartwig, now an athletes' agent, finished 11th at the 1996 Olympics and was primed for another bid in 2000.
On June 14 of 2000 he set the American record of 6.03m, but at the trials a month later he failed to record a height and didn't compete in Sydney.
Hartwig suffered the same fate in 2004, but qualified at the age of 40 for the Beijing Games.
"I remember not making the team in 2000 was the worst," Hartwig recalled. "I was in such good shape and had just broken the American record a few weeks before. You have one bad day and in the end none of it matters."
Dan O'Brien was the decathlon world champion in 1992 when he failed to post a height in the pole vault at the US trials -- ending his Barcelona Games bid.
In September of that year he set a world record of 8,891 points and went on to win Olympic gold in Atlanta in 1996.
In 2008, double world champion Tyson Gay fell in the curve of his 200m quarter-final at the US trials, ending his bid for an Olympic 100-200 double.
Compounding that disappointment, the hamstring injury caused him to miss a month of training and he didn't make the 100m final at Beijing.
Although the system is unforgiving, Hartwig said he hasn't heard of a better one. At least the requirements are clear.
"I think the only commonality we have is that we have an absolute system, and everyone knows what the system is," he said, noting that in some other countries, the decisions of selectors can be just as heartbreaking, and more inscrutable.
"It puts pressure on athletes not only to prepare but to deliver within a window of opportunity," he said.
USA Swimming's national team director, Frank Busch, said that was part of the reasoning in designing the trials system.
"The original thinking was that when you go to the Olympics, you have to perform," he said. "That was the mentality, that this is reality and therefore we want to operate in reality."
The drawback is that a top medal contender could be ill or injured on the crucial day.
Hartwig said it's a possibility that looms large at this stage of an Olympic season.
"We're six weeks out from trials," he noted. "Now as an agent, I start telling my athletes: 'This is the time when you have to be extra careful. Look three times before you cross the street.'
"One mis-step on a set of steps where you roll your ankle and you're done."