At U.S. Olympic swim trials, Chinese doping and Australian stars loom over American speed

INDIANAPOLIS — Nic Fink spent the final hours of a perfect soon-to-be-Father’s Day qualifying for the Olympics, celebrating and reflecting. Seconds after touching first in the 100-meter breaststroke here at U.S. swimming trials, he found his family, mimed rocking a baby, and broke into a proud grin. Hours later, he spoke about his pregnant wife, their incoming baby boy, and life as a utilities engineer and an Olympian. He was asked about balance, about resiliency, about race strategy, about marriage — and then, with the final question of the night, about a Chinese doping scandal.

“I almost got out of here, huh, before someone asked me,” Fink said Sunday with a cautious smile.

Then, however, he spoke thoughtfully for more than two minutes about a story that will loom over his race and others next month in Paris.

In April, the New York Times and ARD, Germany's public broadcaster, revealed that 23 Chinese swimmers had tested positive for a banned substance in 2021 and escaped punishment. The revelations rocked the sport, fueled suspicions, and sparked an international outcry, which led to a new dubious investigation into the case, which is still ongoing.

One of the 23 swimmers was Qin Haiyang, who beat Fink to gold in both of his events at last summer’s world championships.

But this, Fink said, echoing U.S. teammates, is “not about any particular swimmers. It's more about the system.”

Confidence in the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which oversees clean sport globally, “is not very high right now,” Fink said. Katie Ledecky recently told CBS that “faith in some of the systems is at an all-time low.” WADA has responded to scrutiny of its handling of the case with threats and diversions, which have deflated confidence even further — and threatened to distract both swimmers and fans from competition in the pool.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” U.S. Olympian Lilly King said, “for athletes to always have in the back of our mind that maybe this sport’s not fair.”

It’s been especially frustrating as they prepare for the biggest meets of their life.

Qin Haiyang of China reacts after winning the men's 200m breaststroke final at the World Aquatics Swimming World Cup 2023 in Budapest, Hungary on Oct. 22, 2023. (Photo by Attila Volgyi/Xinhua via Getty Images)
Qin Haiyang, who won the men's 200m breaststroke final at the World Championships last October, is among those who reportedly tested positive for a banned substance in 2021. (Attila Volgyi/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Fink is an athlete representative, a member of committees that have been navigating the U.S. response to the China case. But “maybe I'm not on top of everything,” he admitted, “because I'm trying to balance all of that and other responsibilities — like being in the pool.”

As trials approached, in fact, many coaches urged their swimmers to force the scandal out of their minds. Many obsess over “controlling what we can control.” In that sense, China and WADA are uncontrollables — not unlike the Australian rivals throwing down freakishly fast times halfway around the world.

“They’re thinking about today, tomorrow, this meet, this competition, what’s happening here,” Todd DeSorbo, the University of Virginia coach who’ll lead the U.S. women’s team in Paris, said last week. His swimmers, he said, were “focusing on themselves, and swimming fast this week.”

But others, especially veterans, have felt compelled to speak — though sometimes carefully.

“It's just really disappointing,” Olympian Cody Miller said on the eve of trials. U.S. athletes, he added, “go through the process of dealing with USADA [the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency] on a regular basis. Like, I mean, they show up at my house when I'm trying to put my kids to bed and trying to feed them dinner, and I have to go stand in the restroom with a stranger and pee in a cup. This happens. Like, this is commonplace for the United States, that has USADA, which is an actual doping agency.”

It’s also disappointing, in a more acute and damaging sense, for the U.S. swimmers who were beaten at the 2021 Olympics by a Chinese relay that featured Zhang Yufei, another one of the 23 who had tested positive eight months earlier.

“I'm confident that myself and my teammates are all clean athletes,” Paige Madden, a member of that U.S. 4x200-meter relay in 2021, said Monday after she qualified for it again in 2024. “I think Allison Schmitt [another 2021 relay member] said it perfectly: We wanted to get tested after our performance in Tokyo. Getting drug tested is a privilege.”

Madden, though, didn’t want to comment much further on the case. “There's not much we can do about the situation,” she said. “I'll let everyone [else] handle the situation. I think we kind of want to just focus on ourselves.”

Australia's Kaylee McKeown reacts following the women's 200m backstroke final during the Australian Swimming Trials at the Brisbane Aquatic Centre on June 13, 2024. (Photo by Patrick HAMILTON / AFP) / -- IMAGE RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE -- (Photo by PATRICK HAMILTON/AFP /AFP via Getty Images)
Kaylee McKeown is one of Australia's biggest threats for gold next month in Paris. (PATRICK HAMILTON/AFP /AFP via Getty Images)

The other topic looming in Indianapolis since last week is Team USA’s only real rival for swimming supremacy.

Several Americans have been faster than ever before here at U.S. trials — but some not quite as fast as their Australian counterparts.

Regan Smith, for example, set an American record in her 100-meter backstroke semifinal Monday night, finishing in 57.47 seconds. But she was still 0.14 seconds off Australian Kaylee McKeown’s world record, and 0.06 slower than McKeown’s winning time last week at Aussie trials.

Smith, on Monday, was asked about chasing McKeown’s record. “It’s just all about details,” she said. “And Kaylee’s wonderful at just executing everything perfectly.”

McKeown, though, said last week after her 57.41: “I was a bit disappointed with that. There are some improvements to be made.”

Also at Aussie trials, Ariarne Titmus was nearly three full seconds faster than Ledecky was a few days later in the 400 freestyle. And in the 200 free, Titmus and 20-year-old Mollie O’Callaghan both smashed O’Callaghan’s world record.

Overall, for the first time in over two decades, Australian swimmers won more gold medals than Americans at world championships last summer. USA Swimming officials have publicly said that their goal is to right that wrong in Paris. “The Australians, obviously, are swimming well,” U.S. national team director Lindsay Mintenko said last week. “But we’re going to, too.”

That, however, cannot be the focus here at trials. “Regardless of who’s swimming fast outside of the U.S., it doesn’t really matter, right?” DeSorbo said. “Everybody right now is focused on themselves and doing the best they can and getting through the gauntlet of the U.S. trials.”

“Last year is last year,” Anthony Nesty, the U.S. men’s coach, said. “It’s a new season.”