INDIANAPOLIS -- The ask is so fully baked into our consumption of the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials -- and the Olympic journey -- that we lose sight of its surpassing difficulty. The ask goes like this: Be exceptionally talented -- but also disciplined and driven, because the talent alone won't be enough. Be emotionally and mentally fortified against inconsistency or failure, because in swimming, like most Olympic sports (which are comprised more generally of individual, rather than team competitions), while you are loved and supported by family, friends, training partners and coaches, you are also alone in the water. Hardest, be all of those things and then show up on an assigned day at an assigned time and deliver the most important performance of your life. The penalty for not doing so is you might never get the chance again, or in four more years, which can amount to the same thing.

This is the nature of the United States' hunger games Trials, in which the swimming team, reliably one of the strongest in the world, is chosen not by selection, but by self-selection. Not by a group of experts picking the best 26 women and 26 men to represent Team USA in Paris, but by the results of races contested over nine days here this week in -- you may have heard -- a pool inside a football stadium. There is a race, a wall is touched, digits are frozen on a big board in the air, and that is that.

(Everything written in these two paragraphs is also true about track and field, Team USA's other big all-or-nothing Trials, with the notable exception that track takes three athletes per event -- if they meet qualifying standards, which some do not -- while swimming takes only two).

You can argue whether this system is "fair." You would not be the first. Or the millionth. You cannot argue that such a system will not produce fallout. That some athletes will endure the stress better -- or differently -- than others. That for all of them, the assigned day and the assigned time are as tattooed on their souls as the Olympic rings they seek to tattoo on their bodies. And their mileage may vary.

Consider Wednesday night, when the most accomplished women's swimmer in history and the most accomplished active U.S. men's swimmer each swam toward Paris from very different places.

The woman, Katie Ledecky, 27, has won seven gold and three silver medals in three Olympic Games and owns the world record in both the 800- and 1500-meter events, the longest in the sport. Before Wednesday night's 1,500m, she had already won two events here, the 200- and 400-meter freestyle (she will not swim the 200m free in Paris, only the 4X200m free relay). She bears greatness lightly. In an interview Tuesday afternoon with reporters covering the meet, she used the phrases: "Just keep pushing through," and "Put my best foot forward," and "One foot in front of the other."

Ledecky has committed herself to swimming the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. Those would be her fifth Games, at age 31, both unheard-of numbers for most swimmers.

The male, Caeleb Dressel, also 27, won five gold medals at the 2020 Olympics (contested in the summer of 2021) in Tokyo, three individual golds in glitzy sprints: 50m free, 100m free and 100m butterfly. He was loosely cast as something approaching the next Michael Phelps. (There will not be another Phelps, but somebody has to play him in the quadrennial show, for now.) But shortly after that breakout performance, Dressel began to wrestle with swimming's place in his life and its effect on his happiness. He withdrew in the middle of the 2022 World Championships in Budapest, and at one point, spent eight months away from training. "It was a very terrifying part of my life," he told NBC Sports in an interview two months ago. "Because I was like, I don't know who I am right now. I don't know what's going on. Do I want to keep swimming." Put another way: He bore greatness heavily.

By the time Dressel returned to training in the winter of 2023, he was deep into the processing of strengthening his mental health through therapy, self-reflection, and time. He did not make the U.S. team for last summer's worlds in Fukuoka, but in this Olympic year, his times have steadily trended toward 2021 Dressel. Just as important, his emotions have trended in that same direction. "Swimming used to be that a long time ago, and slowly along the way it morphed into this very controlling and not always positive thing,” Dressel's wife, Meghan, told NBC Sports. “Now, to see him on the pool deck smiling and laughing and cracking jokes with the commentators after races when they’re doing post-race interviews. That’s everything.” (Another important factor: Meghan gave birth to the couple's first child on Feb. 17, a boy they named August.)

Ledecky and Dressel are not alone at these emotional poles; they are avatars. Five nights indoors have measured not just the minutes, seconds, tenths and hundredths that separate a trip home from a trip to Paris, but also the ways in which swimmers manage the unmanageable. And the ways in which it sometimes manages them.

There was Lilly King, who on Monday night qualified for her third Olympic team in the 100m breaststroke, an event in which she has two Olympic medals and has held the world record for nearly seven years. King has five Olympic medals in total, and is expected to make the U.S. team Thursday night in the 200m breaststroke and contend for three more medals (including the medley relay) in Paris. She speaks unfiltered and did so after the 100m: "After the semis, I was feeling very, very confident, and probably the most calm I've ever been," said King. "And then right before I dove in, I was freakin' out. This is the hardest meet in the world, harder than the Olympics. I'm confident, probably gonna make it, and it still affected me."

Less than a second behind King in that race, but separated by runner-up Emma Weber and relegated to third by .27-seconds, was Lydia Jacoby, who at age 17 won an upset gold, with King third, at the Tokyo Olympics; and whose back story of playing in a bluegrass band in her native Alaska gave her a sweet and familiar type of Olympic Story Traction. For a while. A day after her third here, Jacoby posted on Instagram that she was dropping out of the 200m breaststroke and taking a break. She wrote: "I am not defined by my results. I am more than an athlete. I will be back. And I will be better. I have made the decision to scratch from the 200 breaststroke later this week in order to process and rejuvenate." Suddenly, heavier greatness.

When asked about Jacoby, King nailed the response in a way that summarizes the meet: "My heart absolutely breaks for [Jacoby]," King said, and then seconds later, "... but on the flip side, what a performance from Emma Weber." Page turned. For now.

Ryan Murphy won both the 100- and 200-meter backstroke events at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, but slipped to bronze in the 100m and silver in the 200m in Tokyo. He won the 100m here and races the 200m final Thursday night. Like Ledecky, he carries ambition comfortably, but hides it less diligently. "No shortage of motivation," he said, referring back to Tokyo. "I've got a fire under me..." Pause. "I like to think I always have a fire under me."

Five years ago, Regan Smith, just 17 years old, broke the world record in the 100m backstroke with a time of 57.57 seconds. Here on Wednesday night, Smith again broke that record, winning the Trials with a time of 57.13 seconds. The five years separating those records was a lifetime. Smith grew out of the youthful cluelessness that made swimming fast easy, and slowly, lost confidence in herself. She took a bronze in the 100m back in Tokyo, along with silvers in the 200m butterfly and medley relay. Kaylee McKeown of Australia broke her 100m backstroke record, and then broke it again. And Smith found a way back.

"When you're 17, you're a teenager... it was very easy," said Smith after her record swim. "I had no pressure on me. [But] there were so many years that went by after 2019 that I thought I would never do that again," she said. "It was confidence all the way. I think I've always had a God-given natural ability to swim backstroke, but I never believed in myself, ever. And that's always going to be a work in progress, I think."

At 8:46 p.m. ET Wednesday night, Ledecky dove from her blocks in lane 4 and into clear water made blue by the coloring on the pool's bottom. She swam a 5m-lap in 30.20 seconds, and then another in 30.62... and then 27 consecutive laps, all from 31.10 seconds and 31.80 seconds. The crowd of more than 22,000, breaking last Saturday's record for the largest to witness a swim meet in the United States, cheered at first and stood at the end, but for most of the race sat nearly silent, as if watching a play. Dance music played and the announcer narrated her work, but the metronomic efficiency and power of her stroke and the margin of her dominance -- nearly a full lap at the finish, have the contrarian effect of dulling the performance. This is a shame.

Ledecky finished in 15:37.35, the 16th-fastest in history. Ledecky has the first 15. One foot in front of the other.  Nevertheless, surpassing excellence brings its own standards. "I was just expecting to go a lot faster," Ledecky said. "I've been faster the last two years. I did a good job holding my splits and I just didn't have that next gear that I would've wanted to have. But there are definitely some things I can do better that I spotted right away when I looked at the splits. So I'll make those adjustments." The 800m free remains, on Saturday.

Sixty-seven minutes passed before Dressel walked onto the pool deck toward lane 3 in the 100m freestyle final. He wore a black puffy warmup and a black cap and received the loudest cheers of all. He smiled. Dressel was the second-oldest among the eight men in the field, because Olympic time passes with extraordinary speed and does not wait for any crisis to pass.

He turned fourth at 50 meters, 0.19-seconds behind the favored twosome of Jack Alexy and Chris Guiliano. Alexy is 21 years old, Guiliano will turn 21 this weekend; they are a swimming generation younger than Dressel and at final wall, Guiliano touched first in 47.38 seconds and Alexy next in 47.47. Dressel gained to third and finished in 47.53. It was his fastest time since 2021, and while it earns him a spot only on the 4X100m freestyle relay and not in the individual 100m free, it is a cleansing step forward. And he has solid chances ahead in the 50m free (Friday) and 100m butterfly (Saturday). 

And a weight has lifted ever so slightly.