FEDERAL WAY, Wash. -- Few people knew the name Michael Phelps when the 14-year-old swimmer dove into the water at the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center in March 2000.
Fifteen years and 18 Olympic gold medals later, Phelps is the most decorated Olympian in history, and he’s back in Federal Way, Washington, for the AT&T Winter National Championships. He began the three-day competition with a win in the men’s 200-meter individual medley Thursday night, edging out second-place finisher Chase Kalisz with a time of 1:57.61. Kalisz finished in 1:58.77.
The win was Phelps’ 60th national title, and 11th national championship in the event. Yet Phelps looked up at his time and shook his head disapprovingly. He called the result a “baby step” to where he would like to go on his way to the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve had trouble with in this past year has been my freestyle, “ Phelps said. “I think it actually felt decent tonight. I didn’t feel like I was standing still and dying. One fifty-seven is not where I want to be, but it’s faster than I was at the end of the year last year going into nationals.”
Phelps holds a soft spot for Federal Way. He gave credit to the KCAC as the spot where his run of dominance first began in 2000.
“The first time I ever broke two minutes in the 200-meter fly was right here,” Phelps said. “Six months after that, I made my first Olympic team. ... Once I hit 1:59 here, everything kind of took off. I made my first team, and there it went. I’ve enjoyed this pool.”
Phelps even has the same routine when he comes to town, eating at the same restaurant, Mitzels American Kitchen, with coach Bob Bowman. The meal? Meatloaf and clam chowder.
Phelps, now 30 and heading into his fifth and last Olympic Games, sounds like an athlete at peace with a career will soon come to an end, and admittedly in a better place mentally than he was at the 2012 Games in London.
“I’m just enjoying every step of the way, because when we do get to the end of the road, it probably will be more emotional than it was in 2012,” he said. “Just because, I am doing this because I want to. As I’ve said before, I was kind of forced in 2012. This ride will be a little better than that one.”
But even though he’s nostalgic in some ways, Phelps’ focus remains on Rio and the 2016 Games.
“I think my one thing is just getting better each day, in and out of the pool,” Phelps said. “If I can make little improvements day-by-day, I’m loving life. That’s how I’ve been over the last year, taking a lot of strides. It’s been showing in the pool, I’ve been swimming faster than I have.”
* Nathan Adrian, a Bremerton, Washington, native, was loudly cheered by the home state crowd as he took the 50-meter freestyle title, finishing with a time of 21.76. Brad Tandy finished second with a time of 21.87. Adrian was happy with the win but felt he could have produced a better time.
“I felt a little more powerful in the water in Minnesota,” Adrian said, referring to the Arena Pro Swim Series opener last month in Minneapolis. “My start was a little more upwind. I got stuck in traffic; that was stupid, I should have known, being from here.”
* Allison Schmitt led off the night with a victory in the women’s 400-meter free, finishing with a time of 4:06.38. It was her best finish in the event since the London Games, where she set a personal best of 4:01.77 and won the silver medal in the event. Open-water swimmer Haley Anderson finished second at 4:08.38 and Sarah Henry finished third at 4:08.86. The times were new personal bests for both Anderson and Henry.
* Conor Dwyer took the men’s 400 free title with a time of 3:48.11, less than two seconds off from his time from the 2012 Games, where he finished fifth. Ryan Cochrane (3:50.15) edged Michael McBroom (3:50.50) for second place.* Maya DiRado (2:11.10) just beat out second-place finisher Caitlin Leverenz (2:11.79) in the 200 IM. Leverenz made a strong final effort off the final turn to nearly catch DiRado.
* Simone Manuel took the women’s 50 free title in the most competitive race of the night, edging Abbey Weitzeil with a time of 24.83. Weitzeil finished at 24.86.