Omaha Getting Ready to Host US Olympic Trials

Seeking a new way to make a splash

By Mike Vorel

Photo Showcase: Swimming Sculpture

Some athletes can appear larger than life. The U.S. swimmer peering onto Dodge Street from Mutual of Omaha's front lawn fits that description better than most.

The 12-foot-tall, 25-foot-wide sculpture portrays a male swimmer appearing to be emerging from the water to take a breath. His brown hair is mostly hidden under a white cap, which has the U.S. flag stamped on the side. His eyes are masked behind silver reflective goggles. Blue and white rocks layered below the sculpture help simulate splashing water.

Mutual of Omaha, a sponsor of USA Swimming, is using the sculpture as a symbol of its support for the upcoming U.S. Swim Trials, which run from June 25 to July 2 in Omaha. The company is trying to improve upon the eye-catcher it erected before the 2008 Trials, a banner of a swimmer that draped over an entire side of the Mutual of Omaha building.

“We thought the biggest thing we could do was put a giant banner, which had never been done before in Omaha, on our building,” said John Hildenbiddle, senior vice president of brand management and public relations for Mutual of Omaha. “The thing is ... how do you top this?”

Eventually, the idea for the 3-D swimmer was born. To bring the idea to life, Mutual of Omaha contacted VEE Corp., a production services company stationed in Minneapolis.

Dave Mink, senior project manager at VEE, has fielded similar requests in the past, but each project is unique in its own way, he said.

“We've done some large structures before,” Mink said. “I did a 20-foot sculpture of football legend Bronko Nagurski once, and did a 16-foot pair of Mariah Carey's legs, but this is bigger and more impactful than those.”

The sculpture itself took more than 800 hours to create. VEE's engineers began by making a much smaller mock of the sculpture, establishing how they would want the swimmer to look on a bigger scale. They then did a 3-D scan of the mock, feeding the sculpture's exact dimensions into a computer.

The computer converted those dimensions to the size of the sculptured swimmer and projected the dimensions onto a large piece of plastic foam, from which the swimmer would be sculpted. Finally, an artist went to work, sculpting the foam to the computer's exact specifications. Once sculpted, the swimmer was primed, painted and prepared for its long journey to Omaha.

The swimmer itself is made up of two parts, the head and the torso. Both parts were hoisted onto a wide-load semi-truck on Friday morning, and from there the swimmer traveled almost 400 miles from Minneapolis to Omaha. The sculpture arrived late Friday afternoon, with the installation beginning about 9 that night.

To move the two parts of the swimmer's body from the truck to the grass beside 34th and Dodge Streets, VEE brought in a hydraulic crane. The crane's arm first hoisted up the torso and set it down on the grass. Then it picked up the head from inside the crate where it had been resting in the truck, and slid it into place above the torso.

And just like that, an Olympic swimmer made up of 300 pounds of steel and 750 pounds of plastic foam had been born.

The swimmer, Mutual of Omaha hopes, will both reinforce the company's support and appreciation of USA Swimming and signify a marked improvement over the banner that hung on their building in 2008. However, Hildenbiddle said this is only the beginning.

Mutual of Omaha is unveiling its “Phase 2” on June 11, a project that is said to complement the giant swimmer. While the details are confidential, Hildenbiddle isn't afraid to make promises.

“It'll be totally different than anything Omaha has ever seen in this city,” he said. He paused before reasserting himself.

“I guarantee you that.”