What's swimming inside a football stadium like? 'I felt like I was walking out to a boxing match'

INDIANAPOLIS — The swimmers clang up 12 makeshift stairs, then dip underneath a 100-foot-tall curtain, into the unseen belly of Lucas Oil Stadium’s temporary Olympic beast. They emerge from a tunnel, and that’s when they hear the breathtaking roar. They see spotlights dancing chaotically, across a pool deck and throughout one half of this cavernous NFL arena. They hear music rumbling. A public address announcer booms their name.

Some glanced up Saturday to survey 20,689 fans, who’d filed into Lucas Oil for U.S. Olympic swimming trials; but this, some said, feels nothing like a standard swim meet.

“I felt like I was walking out to a boxing match or something,” said Lilly King, who’ll attempt to qualify for her third Olympics here on Monday night.

Up in section 626, her fellow Hoosiers could barely see her. To the thousands who paid $35 for upper-deck tickets, she looked less like an elite athlete, more like a tiny speck inching across an illuminated blue surface, then crawling through a pool.

They could, though, see her 40-foot-tall likeness on a massive digital “entrance board.” And they had something of a bird’s-eye view as she pulled ahead of her 100-meter breaststroke semifinal competitors.

They could also down a Michelob Ultra or a slice of overpriced pizza. They could sing along to “Livin’ on a Prayer,” and laugh along with in-stadium entertainment. They could participate in a wave. They could feel the semi-organic energy that rippled up and down the south end of the stadium.

And they could help make history. The 17,697 who came Sunday morning were a record crowd for preliminary heats at any swim meet, anywhere, ever. And 18,182 more arrived at Lucas Oil on Sunday night.

The 20,689 on Saturday night for finals were also a modern-era record, according to organizers — though the International Swimming Hall of Fame says that the indoor-meet attendance record remains 25,000 at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Ticket sales in Indy have not quite met USA Swimming’s ambitious goals. The national governing body, which runs Olympic trials, has not come close to selling out the roughly 30,000 tickets per session it was offering — sometimes at discounted rates. The 70,000-seat stadium is divided in half by a black curtain, to give the atmosphere at least a hint of intimacy. Still, though, most sideline seats — and some entire sections — have been empty.

Fans inside Lucas Oil Stadium cheer after Katie Ledecky received a medal after qualifying for her fourth Olympic Games. (Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)
Fans inside Lucas Oil Stadium cheer after Katie Ledecky received a medal after qualifying for her fourth Olympic Games. (Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)

But the seats that would typically loom over the Indianapolis Colts’ south end zone have been mostly full. They’re what the swimmers see when they walk from a midfield ready room, through the towering digitized tunnel, toward the temporary 50-meter competition pool. And they’re what newly minted Olympians see after rising from seemingly underground, on an elevator platform, to surface level to receive flowers and a medal. Each event winner turns around and sees a wall of adoring fans. On Saturday, at the urging of an in-arena host, many of the thousands saluted Katie Ledecky with a light show.

“It was incredible,” Ledecky said afterward. She has been to trials, and to three Olympics, and to the top of the world before. Still, on opening night of these trials, as she qualified for her fourth Games, she was “blown away.”

She had also been nervous. Ledecky, like others, expected a relatively sparse crowd for prelims. Instead, as she walked toward the blocks for her 400-meter freestyle heat around midday Saturday, she saw the wall of humans, and heard the roar.

“We got up on the blocks,” Ledecky recalled. “I thought that the noise had died down. And then it got louder again. I started shaking.” She crouched to dive in, and frantically told herself: “Relax, Katie. Relax, relax, don't false start, don't false start, don’t false start.”

“It was kind of this energy that I hadn't felt at this kind of a meet, even an international meet, before,” she said.

Longtime swimming journalists and supporters made similar observations. No, the stands weren’t full; and yes, there are oddities; but the scale is undeniably cool, and the atmosphere has been electric.

Some of it extends far beyond Lucas Oil Stadium. Organizers have gone to unprecedented lengths to make these Olympic trials feel like a major, mainstream, Super Bowl-style event. Airport signage welcomes any Indy visitor to trials. Banners and the blown-up likenesses of King, Ledecky and other stars dot major roads and downtown intersections. There’s a 70-foot-tall replica of the Eiffel Tower. There’s a convention-center fan fest. There are amateur swimmers young and old milling about.

The view from the upper deck made the swimmers look like tiny specs. (Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)
The view from the upper deck made the swimmers look like tiny specs. (Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)

Inside the stadium, at around 8 each night, 7kingZ’s “This Is It” sets the tone. The bass shakes your soul. It feels just as Mark Dodd, the president of the company in charge of event presentation, told Yahoo Sports that it would be, “a little bit like you're doing swimming à la WWE.”

The swimmers, behind the black curtain in and around the warmup pool, are somewhat sheltered. But when they emerge, they feel it too.

“I think the walk-out was more fun than the race,” King said.

But the races were pretty fun, too. As Gretchen Walsh sped toward a world record and a breakthrough Olympic berth, ”I could hear the crowd every breath I took,” Walsh said. “It was awesome.”

To King, the actual swimming was no different than it would be in a basketball arena or a neighborhood pool. “But the before and after has definitely been a lot more fun,” she added. It is incomparable to a claustrophobic natatorium, or even the type of aquatic center that might host a world championships. As she paused to soak it all in, she wondered: “Do other athletes get to feel like this all the time?”

“It was unbelievable,” she said.

It was special, especially for the hundreds of swimmers who grew up envisioning themselves in front of bigger crowds than swimming typically draws. “I've always dreamed of performing in a basketball arena or football stadium, at least when I was a kid,” said Aaron Shackell, an 18-year-old freestyler from Carmel, Indiana. “In swimming you don't always have that opportunity.”

But he got it, and took it, qualifying for his first Olympics in the 400 free Saturday night. He slammed his goggles in celebration, and, after adrenaline had subsided, gazed up in awe.

“To get an opportunity to put on a show in front of 20,000 fans,” Shackell said — “it's everything to me.”