FEDERAL WAY, Wash. -- It seemed, for just a moment anyway, that Michael Phelps’ reign in the 100-meter butterfly could have very well been overtaken.
The crowd at the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center held its collective breath for the last 20 meters as Tom Shields held a slight lead over the 18-time Olympic champion, edging closer toward the wall for that possible upset.
But the long limbs of Phelps, the three-time reigning Olympic champion in the event, proved too much to overtake, and Phelps nudged Shields in the last 10 meters to once again take the title Friday night at the AT&T Winter National Championships. Phelps finished with a time of 51.38, while Shields finished at 51.41.
“I think I was thinking about the race more than I should have been, or maybe took one too many looks,” Shields said. “I just didn’t get into my finishing strokes.”
Even with the close call, Phelps was pleased about his performance.
“Within a second of where I was at the end of last year, I think the time is perfect,” Phelps said. “I think the one thing I would change — if I could — was take one more kick off the 50 (meter) wall.”
It’s the second title of the three-day event for Phelps, who has now collected 61 national titles in his career. Phelps was also tops in the 200-meter individual medley Thursday.
Both swimmers appeared strong off the blocks, but Shields held a slight edge out of the break. He kept that lead going into the turn at 50 meters and fought to keep the lead going into the last length of the pool.
“I saw Tom out of the break and I said, ‘Uh oh,’” Phelps said. “I did watch his stroke this morning. His stroke has changed a lot. His stroke is higher tempo-based than it was in the past. I thought it was going to be close in the last 25 (meters), that’s where I accelerate a little bit.”
It was a night of close races. In women’s 200-meter freestyle, reigning Olympic champion Allison Schmitt faced a tough battle from fan favorite Missy Franklin, but Schmitt won the event by an arm’s length. Schmitt finished at 1:56.77, while Franklin was second at 1:57.30.
Schmitt was strong off the blocks and maintained a slight edge on Franklin. Simone Manuel had a strong kick in the middle to catch up with both Schmitt and Franklin going into the final 100 meters, but she fell back in the final 50 meters to finish fifth.
Like her good friend Phelps, Schmitt’s win was her second of the winter nationals after taking the women’s 400 free title Thursday.
Franklin, a four-time Olympic champ in 2012, sent her fans home happy near the end of the evening. She edged Ali Deloof to take the women’s 100 backstroke title. Franklin finished at 1:00.03, slightly less than two seconds over her personal best of 58.33. Deloof’s time of 1:00.10 was a new personal best.
* Going in the trend of close races was the women’s 400 IM. It was a back-and-forth battle between winner Maya DiRado and runner-up Elizabeth Beisel. Off the blocks, Beisel took the early lead and held strong for 150 meters. But DiRado took the lead in the backstroke and never looked back. Beisel fought hard in the freestyle during the last 50 meters and nearly regained the lead, but DiRado edged her 4:36.85 to 4:37.01.
* All it took was a strong turn at 200 meters to give Chase Kalisz the men’s 400 IM title. Christian Carbone stayed with Kalisz for the first half of the race, but at 200 meters, Kalisz took off like a rocket off his turn and won the event by nearly a quarter pool length. Kalisz finished with a time of 4:12.80.
* Dana Vollmer — the 100-meter butterfly gold medalist from the 2012 Olympic Games — won the national title in the event Friday night. However, the win didn’t come easily. Second-place finisher Claire Donahue was stronger off the blocks and led after 50 meters, but Vollmer fought back and overtook the lead with 25 meters remaining. Vollmer finished the event at 57.95. Vollmer, training toward the 2016 Games after having a child nine months ago, was pleased with her day.
“Time-wise, I feel like I’m the same person,” Vollmer said. “I feel like I have 55 (seconds) in me, and I just have to get back to it. Just putting in each day, each training session. It’s nice to see time chipping away slowly.”
* A strong start off the blocks left Conor Dwyer virtually uncontested on his way to the title in the men’s 200 free. Dwyer looked strong throughout the race and finished at 1:46.62. He has had a good trip to Federal Way so far, as he also won the men’s 400 free on Thursday.
* Yuliya Efimova of Russia took the lead from Lilly King in the final 20 meters to win the 100 breaststroke. King had a strong start and had a good turn after the first 100 meters, but Efimova had a strong finish to win the event. Sam Tierney won the men’s 100 breaststroke title.
* Matt Grevers had his best time of the year in the men’s 100 backstroke, taking the title with a time of 52.54. The time was close to Grevers’ personal best of 52.08.