IRVINE, Calif. – By day, Michael Phelps looked like the Olympic champion everyone remembers, clocking the fastest time in the world this year in the 100-meter butterfly at the 2014 Phillips 66 National Championships.
By night, though, Phelps didn’t have the same old magic at his fingertips. On the sixth anniversary of the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, where Phelps famously out-touched Milorad Cavic by .01 of a second, he lost to Tom Shields by the same miniscule margin. Shields came in at 51.29 seconds, Phelps at 51.30. Both times were slower than the 51.17 Phelps swam in the morning preliminaries, which coach Bob Bowman said was the best race of his comeback “by far.”
“It’s better to be on the losing side at a meet like this than it is at a bigger meet,” Phelps said. “I’ve been able to be there at the right time at the right meets and I’d rather lose a national championship and win the Olympics or world championships.”
Here are some notes from the pool on the third of five days of competition:
Streak ends: Phelps suffered his first defeat at nationals in what he says has been, “my kind of event — the event I love swimming the most.” He had won 11 national titles going into the meet in the 100 fly and three of his 18 Olympic gold medals in the event. It’s been that kind of nationals so far for Phelps, who has won more than 50 national titles. On Wednesday, he placed seventh in the 100 freestyle after botching his turn. Officially, Phelps is not yet assured of going to the Pan Pacific Championships in Australia later this month, but should have no problem making the team as more swimmers qualify in multiple events. “I’m somebody who can’t stand to lose, I don’t care if it’s by .01 or by 5 seconds,” Phelps said. “This will definitely motivate me over the next couple of weeks to prepare for Pan Pacs, and this will be something that sticks with me over the next year leading up to hopefully world championships.”
Flying high: Shields won his second national title after previously winning the 200 butterfly. Like Phelps, the 100 is his favorite event. “That’s my go-to, the one that I think about,” Shields said. “That’s the one that comes up in my dreams more often than not.” Shields almost quit swimming after struggling mentally to come back from a lung infection earlier this year. He said he remembers watching Phelps from his garage in 2008 and 2009. Beating him is, “a cool feeling.” Shields and Phelps tied in the final at the Santa Clara Grand Prix in June, each clocking 52.11. This time, Shields turned and saw Phelps with 15 meters to go, which was a good sign, though he acknowledged, “He’ll pass you in an instant.” But Phelps, who had been seventh at 50 meters after gliding to the turn, couldn’t quite get his hand on the wall first.
What about Bob? Bob Bowman called Phelps’ performance “pretty terrible.” By gliding to the turn, he lost all of his momentum. What was the problem? “I think he was nervous,” Bowman said. Bowman said the last time Phelps felt pressure to make a national team was in 2000, when he qualified for his first Olympic squad at age 15. “I just felt out of it; like not my normal self at finals,” Phelps said. “Normally I’m very relaxed and very ready. It’s probably just because I’m not used to being in this kind of shape or this kind of feeling going into a meet.” Bowman said Phelps gets better every day. “As he does some more work, he’ll be good,” Bowman said. “He’ll be more confident. You’re more prepared, you’re more confident.”
Bouncing back: On Thursday, Elizabeth Beisel slipped at the start of the 200-meter backstroke, watching her hopes of quickly securing a Pan Pac berth slip away with her sixth-place finish. “Well, it’s safe to say I can’t wait for FINA to approve that backstroke ledge,” she said on Twitter. “Thanks for all of the support.” She came back strong a day later to win the 400-meter individual medley and make the Pan Pac team. The silver medalist in the 400 IM at the London 2012 Games, Beisel qualified for the final with a time 3 seconds faster than the rest of the field. She was on American record-pace at the halfway mark, but finished in 4 minutes, 32.98 seconds, just off Katie Hoff’s mark of 4:31.12 set in 2008. “The pressure’s off now,” she said. “Now I can breathe and just enjoy the rest of the meet. “ Naturally, her mother, Joan, an official at the meet, was thrilled for her. She even had the privilege of presenting the medals to Beisel and the other finalists. “That was totally unexpected,” Beisel said. “When I was on the (medal) stand, she was like, ‘They made me do it.’ Surrrrre. It was super cute and I’m sure it meant a lot to her and it was nice.”
Race ready: Aspiring NASCAR driver Tyler Clary put the hammer down in the last 100 meters to win his second title of the meet. Clary had a substantial lead at the halfway mark of the 400-meter individual medley, but said Chase Kalisz “was reeling me in like a cowboy” on the breaststroke leg. With only a .03 edge going into freestyle, Clary won by nearly 2 seconds, 4:09.51 to 4:11.52. Clary’s mark was the second-fastest in the world this year. “Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been really competitive,” Clary said. “In the heat of the moment, I’m willing to throw up blood to get my hand on the wall first. It doesn’t always work out for me, but it sure is fun when it does.” Clary also won the 200-meter backstroke. Kendyl Stewart was another double winner at nationals. She clinched the crown in the 100-meter butterfly, an event in which she failed to score at this year’s NCAA meet, with a time of 57.98 seconds. “I was ready to come back and show what I could do this summer,” said Stewart, who also won the 50 fly. “It gave me some fire.”
Feeling short-changed: While the 50-meter freestyle is an Olympic event, the 50 backstroke, 50 breaststroke and 50 butterfly are not. They’re not in the Pan Pacs, either. However, they are swum at the world championships. Olympic gold medalist Jessica Hardy won the 50 breast to qualify for her fifth world championships in the event. She won the bronze in 2013, the gold in 2011 and 2007 and the silver in 2005. “I wish they were in the Olympics,” Hardy said. “If they ever get in the Olympics, I’ll come back no matter how old I am. I’m just grateful we get to swim them on U.S. soil. It’s a huge growth opportunity for sprinting in the U.S.” The 2015 World Championships are in Kazan, Russia. Coincidentally, a street named Kazan is less than a mile from the pool in Irvine. “That’s awesome,” Hardy said.
Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 14 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.