OMAHA, Neb. — On the first two nights of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming, Michael Phelps was in an unfamiliar spot. Sporting a goatee, he sat with the NBC crew in the stands and provided commentary about the first events at trials. He even made predictions (such as Chase Kalisz’s win in the men’s 400-meter IM).
But Monday night, Phelps arrived in the stands clean shaven, a sign that business was about to begin.
He dove into the pool at Omaha’s CenturyLink Center this morning and swam the fastest prelim time in the men’s 200-meter butterfly.
“I just wanted to swim; that was the most annoying part, I think, having to wait this long,” he said, still breathing hard from the effort. “I’m happy to have the first one underway and keep going tonight.”
The 22-time Olympic medalist and 2012 Olympic silver medalist in the 200 fly wasn’t happy with his performance though. His time of 1:56.68 was far off the 1:52.94 that he swam last year at the Phillips 66 National Championships.
“Bad, awful,” he said. “I felt like I didn't really use much legs, kind of dragging them along. Something to build off of tonight.”
But it was faster than the time that he swam in the 200 fly prelims at the 2012 Olympic Trials (1:57.75) — and faster than the time he swam in the 200 fly to make his first Olympic team back in 2000.
A handful of Phelps’ competitors in the 200 fly prelims were born in 2000. For many of them, Phelps has been a constant throughout their lives.
“He’s been a huge role model my entire life, he still is now,” said Mick Litherland, age 20, who swam in the same 200 fly prelim heat as Phelps. “So right now, being able to race with him at trials is really special.”
Litherland, whose triplet brother Jay finished second in the men’s 400 IM on Sunday night and will likely be named to his first Olympic team, was two lanes away from Phelps in the 200 fly prelim heat and laughed when asked if he was aware of the legend — “Yeah, of course!”
But rather than feel diminished by the experience, Litherland was inspired.
“I’m at the point where it’s awesome how I get to think of him as a rival now,” he said.
In the 16 years since Phelps first swam at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, swimming has changed — at least in the U.S. Phelps has been a major force in this change, making swimming (and himself) a headline sport.
At 2000 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Indianapolis, Phelps remembers a small venue with relatively little seating.
“It was 3,000, and I felt like it was packed!” he said in a pre-meet press conference.
Four years later, swimming trials were held outdoors near an aquarium in Long Beach, California. Since then, Omaha has hosted trials at the CenturyLink Center. Last night, over 14,000 people attended the evening finals, and the entire meet is a sellout. Ticket sales have topped 200,000 and total attendance is up 40,000 from 2008 and 2012.
And on the front of the CenturyLink Center hangs a giant photo of Phelps. Ironically, the swimmer’s hotel room faces the venue, so he has kept the blinds pulled for days. If he opens them, “I’m staring at my face all day!” he joked.
Despite his giant visage promoting the sport, Phelps is happy with the direction that swimming has gone. He even gave a shout-out to his nemesis, the media.
“Being able to have you guys here and wanting to cover us, I think it’s something that we’re very thankful for, you know, watching the sport take off from 2000 until what it is today,” he said.
Phelps himself has also changed a lot — even since 2012 when he did not want to be at either trials or the Olympic Games. He has battled personal demons. And he’s a father now, and 7-week-old Boomer (a name inspired by quarterback and NFL commentator Boomer Esiason) and soon-to-be wife Nicole Johnson are also in Omaha.
Now Phelps is excited to be back at his last Olympic Trials, noting that he joked around with Ryan Lochte and Elizabeth Beisel in the warm-down pool the other day.
“It was actually enjoyable,” he said. “It wasn’t like a fake laugh or this or that. I was actually enjoying myself, and we were telling jokes with one another. That’s what I didn’t have in 2012. That was nowhere to be found.”
Phelps has also trained better than he did coming into the 2012 Olympic Games. And he weighs more — 193 pounds now versus 187 in 2012. And those six extra pounds are not fat.
“He seems to be doing well in practice, and that’s all we can ask for,” said coach Bob Bowman. “I think he’s going to do well.”
But Bowman cautioned that this year can’t be compared to previous years in Phelps’ long career. Phelps is, after all, older now — a ripe 30, going on 31 in two days.
Age has not slowed him yet. Phelps looked like his old dolphin self swimming the 200 fly, as if the water was something to launch off of, not swim through. It’s too bad that son Boomer will not remember watching his dad swim in person.
Should he win the 200 fly tomorrow night, he will qualify for his fifth Olympic team. But for Phelps, the father, it won’t be old hat.
“I think there have been a lot of firsts for me leading up to an Olympic Trials like this,” he said, “and I think that’s just what has made it more fun and more interesting.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.