OMAHA, Neb. — In an Olympic Trials where more new faces have made the 2016 U.S. Olympic Swimming Team than veterans, Saturday was a night for Olympic champions.
Michael Phelps came into the CenturyLink Center on Saturday night and told his coach, Bob Bowman, “I don’t want to lose my last race on American soil.”
|Michael Phelps competes in the men's 200-meter IM final at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming at CenturyLink Center on July 1, 2016 in Omaha, Neb.|
This thought stayed in Phelps’ head as he dove into the pool for the 100-meter butterfly. At the turn, he was fourth. But he powered into the lead in the final 50 and won in 51 seconds flat, beating Tom Shields for the second time this week.
“I was determined and fired up today, and this is the best that I’ve felt so far this meet,” Phelps said.
The Olympic legend will now have a chance to defend his 100 fly gold medal in Rio. He has won every 100 fly he’s competed in at a global championship since 2005 worlds, and he has won the race three consecutive times at the Olympic Games.
It brought to an end an emotional week for Phelps. Although he admitted that racing hurt —particularly Friday night when he had to swim the 200 IM and 100 fly semifinal within 28 minutes — he soaked in every moment, hugging teammate Ryan Lochte after they went 1-2 in the 200 IM and even seeming to enjoy the media attention. Or at least tolerate it.
His most emotional moment came in an event that he didn’t even enter — the 400 IM. He sat with the NBC commentators and watched friend and training partner Chase Kalisz win.
“It was kind of like my younger brother winning,” Phelps said.
Then there was his family in the stands. His father, with whom he reconciled over the past couple of years, was in Omaha, as was his fiancé, Nicole Johnson, and their son, Boomer, who mostly slept in a wrap on his mom — but looked like his dad with red-white-and-blue headphones blocking out the crowd noise.
“I have a lot of emotion here with Boomer and with family here, and being my last meet on American soil, so there is a lot going on this week,” he said. “But I’m happy with that, you know, we did everything that we wanted to do. I made three events and the possibility for relays.”
And most importantly, Phelps qualified for his fifth Olympic Games.
“I came into these trials wanting to make my fifth Olympic team, and I did that,” he said. “We talked so much about it, but it’s true. I came back because I wanted to, I wanted to do this for me. Sure, we weren’t happy with the times, but I got a spot on the team.”
In addition to the 100 fly, Phelps will defend his Olympic gold medal in the 200 IM and try to win another in the 200 fly (he took the silver medal in London). He will likely compete on the medley relay as well, giving him a chance to add four more medals to his current 22.
But he did not come back to add to that total.
“I love being in the water, I love racing, I love being at this level,” he said. “I didn’t want to have that ‘what if’ 20 years down the road. For me, it was strictly because I wanted to come back, and I felt like I could be at my best when I came back. We’re not there yet, but we have a couple of weeks to see if I can get there.”
Asked if he has a clear plan to shave off time, Phelps responded, “Bob does. I hope he does. If he doesn’t, I’ve got to fire him!”
The night also belonged to Olympic champions in the men’s 50-meter freestyle. The field featured three Olympic medalists: Nathan Adrian, Anthony Ervin, who won the event in 2000, and Cullen Jones, silver in 2012.
“It’s an honor to come out of that field on top,” said Adrian, who calls himself a “100 guy who swims the 50.”
“Tony and I have swum next to each other a lot, and he usually gets me,” he added. “I snuck in there by 0.01 seconds this time. But I’m sure he’ll be there come Rio.”
Ervin was his usual philosophical self after the race. He had eluded to “unfinished business” as a reason for returning to swimming in 2011. But when asked to elaborate, he playfully replied, “I don’t know, I’ll let you know when I finish it.”
Ervin tied for the gold medal in the 50 free at the 2000 Olympic Games — the same year that a 15-year-old Phelps made his Olympic debut. Ervin was also a teenager back then. He quit swimming in 2003, then auctioned off his gold medal to aid victims of the 2004 tsunami that swept through the Indian Ocean.
“My perspective on life and the things I valued were so amorphous and vague, very limited in my understanding of myself and the world,” he said when asked if he was enjoying the trials experience more as a 35-year-old than as a teen.
He returned for the London Games, qualifying in the 50 freestyle. He finished fifth in the final and set his sights on qualifying for Rio.
“I felt that after London, I was very raw, that there was still a lot for me to learn,” he said. “And I was enjoying the experience. There wasn’t this distance and alienation that I got from being on top of the world the first time (in 2000). It was a misconception on my own part that led me to that. So I didn’t have that in 2012.”
As the oldest swimmer on the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team — in fact, the oldest U.S. men’s swimmer to make the Olympics in an individual event since 1904, according to SwimSwam.com — Ervin is not done yet.
“It seems to be a theme of this meet with us elder statesmen that we’re never going to be fully done with swimming,” he said. “Whether we try to measure up in this kind of way, whether we tell ourselves we’re going for broke, that will probably fade. But swimming will always be in me.”
While Phelps loudly proclaimed, “This is it! This is it! No more,” Ervin would like to be at Olympic Trials again in 2020 — and hopes to make finals.
“In 2024, I hope I make the cut,” he said. “In 2030, who knows? Maybe at that point, maybe I’ll be ready to emcee the event.”
In other action Saturday night, two women also qualified for their third individual event in Rio.
Maya DiRado, 23, took a commanding lead in the second half of the 200-meter backstroke and beat reigning Olympic champion Missy Franklin, 2:06.90, the fourth-fastest time in the world this year. She improved her personal best by over a full second. Franklin finished second in 2:07.89.
DiRado also won the 200 and 400 IMs at Trials.
With Katie Ledecky flying through trials like a human torpedo, everyone else in the women’s 800 freestyle was swimming for second place. Ledecky swam at world-record pace for the first 550 meters, then dropped off WR pace but still won in 8:10.32.
Leah Smith, who has tried to stay within reach of Ledecky at trials, finished second for the second time. She came in at 8:20.18 -- a personal best. Already on the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team, Smith will swim in the 400, 800 and 4x200 free relay in Rio.
Ledecky and Maya DiRado are the only U.S. women who will compete in three individual events in Rio -- the 200, 400 and 800 for Ledecky, and the 200 and 400 IMs and 200 back for DiRado. Ledecky will also swim in the 4x200 free relay, giving her four chances to win Olympic medals in Rio.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.