INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ Mel Stewart senses so much negative energy surrounding this week’s U.S. Olympic swimming trials, he won’t show up on deck until minutes before his races.
Established stars Stewart, Janet Evans, Summer Sanders and Tom Jager will be going for spots on the final Olympic team of their careers in the trials beginning Wednesday.
Only the top two finishers in each event qualify for the Atlanta Games.
That kind of pressure keeps Stewart hiding in his hotel room.
``The atmosphere is very, very negative. Very few are going to make the team. You can cut the tension on deck with a knife,″ he said. ``I don’t want to look into those faces and see people crying. It’s unnerving. I don’t want to see that.″
Most of the swimmers had arrived by Tuesday, but Stewart was still in Knoxville, Tenn. His first event is the 200-meter butterfly on Friday.
``I just want to keep my head and swim a solid race. If I do that, I think I’ll make the team,″ he said. ``It’s not easy to do when you’re thinking in the back of your mind, this could put me on the Olympic team or this could keep me off the Olympic team.″
The Olympic trials are the only swimming meet where second place is as good as first.
No one knows that better than Evans and her coach Mark Schubert.
``There have been a lot of people that have been second in the trials and have come out Olympic gold medalists, and nobody ever remembers what place you get at the trials,″ Schubert said. ``They remember what place you get at the Games.″
To earn a shot at a fifth gold medal in Atlanta, Evans first has to contend with Brooke Bennett in the 400 and 800 freestyles. Her 15-year-old rival comes into the trials having trounced Evans in both events at last summer’s nationals in Pasadena, Calif.
``It would be great to be first, but second, I’m still accomplishing my goal,″ Bennett said about possibly making her first Olympic team. ``After I make that goal, then I’ll have to concentrate about the way I can go in there and swim fast.″
Evans and Bennett didn’t come face-to-face Tuesday despite being in the same room for a news conference. Evans held court in the center of the room, surrounded by reporters and cameras, while Bennett talked to a smaller group at a side table along the wall.
There is no love lost between them. On more than one occasion, Bennett has said Evans fears her. After last month’s winter nationals in Orlando, Bennett suggested Evans didn’t show up because she didn’t want to face stiff competition until the trials.
Bennett’s lack of respect used to irritate Evans, who has adopted a new attitude.
``If she’s going to keep shooting her mouth off, I can’t stop her,″ Evans said. ``It doesn’t motivate me anymore, it doesn’t make me angry, I just kind of laugh about it and move on.″
At 24, Evans finds herself playing underdog to the favored Bennett, and she revels in the role.
``It’s kind of fun to be the old underdog,″ she said. ``That’s one of the reasons the pressure has been taken off of me. I don’t have anything to prove, so I have nothing to lose.″
Jager, 31, is going for his fourth Olympic team, which would be a record for men’s swimming. The world record holder in the 50 freestyle is coming off a sub-par 1995, when he was third at the Pan American Games and failed to make the finals at the Pan Pacific trials.
Sanders is one of several ’92 Olympians attempting a comeback at the trials. She won two golds at the 1992 Olympics, then retired to pursue a TV broadcasting career.