Locals woke up before daybreak Thursday morning to witness an event that hadn't occurred in Knoxville since 1996.
Arriving as early as 4 a.m., spectators, including many UT students, waited in the rain outside the Allan Jones Intercollegiate Aquatic Center to watch the U.S. Olympic swimming team train for the upcoming London Olympics. The team arrived in Knoxville on Sunday and will practice on campus until leaving Knoxville on Saturday for France. The U.S. squad previously trained in Knoxville before the Atlanta Summer Games 16 years ago.
Thursday was the only opportunity for the public to watch the team. The first 1,200 people in line were able to watch inside the aquatic center from 8-9 a.m., while the outdoor pool was open from 8-10 a.m. to those who couldn't get a seat inside.
While the inclement weather made for an interesting start to the day, the result was an experience many will never forget.
For Kristy Myers, a junior in microbiology, the possibilities were endless.
"When I heard that the Olympic team would be coming to Knoxville, I thought it was crazy that they would come here of all cities in America," Myers said. "I mean, Knoxville is awesome. I was just excited I might have the chance to run into (Michael) Phelps or (Ryan) Lochte at Walgreens."
Though Myers was disappointed in her hopes for a chance meeting with an Olympian, she managed to console herself with the knowledge she had witnessed something few people see in person.
"Seeing them at the open practice was a little anticlimactic because I wanted them to be more crowd interactive," Myers said. "But it was still exciting that we got to see something that most Americans don't get the chance to see."
With the Olympics looming, swimmers like Phelps and Lochte are preparing to represent the U.S. and looking for more gold medals. Phelps said his focus is on the end achievement and nothing more.
"For me right now, the only thing I'm worried about is myself and preparing myself to go out and represent my country and step up wearing the stars and stripes and try to swim as fast as I can," he said.
Phelps, who holds the all-time record for most Olympic gold medals with 14, and other swimmers couldn't help but notice the energy the fans brought to the pool. Phelps said that while the facilities at UT are amazing, he was impressed with the amount of encouragement the fans have brought to the equation.
"We haven't had a crowd like this or a day like this in the last three Olympics for me so it's definitely pretty cool to come out and hear these guys cheering us on," Phelps said.
Lochte was unable to resist a little shout-out to the fans during the open practice on Thursday, as he grabbed a micrphone from Knoxville native Davis Tarwater. Lochte later said that though he'd participated in two previous Olympics, this was the first time where he'd had such a huge crowd watching practice.
Though competing with some of the best swimmers in the world, Lochte didn't appear overly concerned. His rivalry with Phelps only spurs him on.
"What makes sports is great rivalries. What me and Michael have created in the past eight years has been tremendous for this sport," Lochte said. "It's just making the sports bigger and that's what we really want to do. At the end of the day, we want to make the sports of swimming what it was eight years ago. Going into this Olympics, I think this is gonna be the biggest rivalry since (Michael) Jordan and Magic (Johnson in the NBA). It's huge and I'm just happy to be on the same team as him. We're definitely gonna put on a show."
Like Lochte, Natalie Coughlin is a three-time Olympian, who is also an 11-time medalist in the Games, including winning gold three times. She said the reception the team has received from UT and the community has been welcoming.
"We've gotten so much support from all the fans that showed up at 4 a.m. that I still think is crazy, but more power to them," she said. "I hope the people know how much we really appreciate that. Whether it's just a smile or a wave or a 'Go U.S.A.,' It means a lot."
As one of the older swimmers, Coughlin sees herself in more of a mentor role this go-around.
"In '04 I was a rookie and in '08 I was somewhere in the middle experience-wise," she said. "On this team, I'm definitely a veteran. I'm trying to take that leadership role and realize how important it is and help out all the younger kids as much as possible.
"There's a lot of emotions with the Olympics and it's hard to describe it unless you've been there. There's anxiety, but there's also so much pride and honor and excitement, but the only way to describe it is overwhelming. It's overwhelming in every sense of the word."
The veteran swimmers like Phelps, Lochtz and Coughlin said the key for the U.S. team is to keep calm, encourage teammates, have fun and enjoy the experience.
"The past two times I've tried to enjoy them as much as possible," Coughlin said. "In Athens (in 2004), I was so in awe of the entire thing I barely remember anything. It went by in the blink of a second. In Beijing (in 2008), I really tried to step back and take it all in. This time around I really want to take that a step further and savor the moment and enjoy it on a day-to-day basis."