OMAHA, Neb. – The simple gesture spoke of a number, and it was appropriate, for matchless numbers have defined so much of Michel Phelps’ swimming career.
This time, the number was a five, which Phelps noted by holding up his left hand and spreading the fingers wide after he won Wednesday night’s 200-meter butterfly final at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming.
It meant Phelps, who turns 31 Thursday, had become the first man to make five U.S. Olympic swim teams.
“God, I’ve been in the sport a long time,” Phelps said.
He had been just 15 when he made his first team in 2000, also in the 200 butterfly. He was then the youngest U.S. men’s Olympic swimmer since 1932. Should he win an individual event gold medal at the upcoming Rio Olympic Games, he would be the oldest man ever to do that in the Olympics.
Dara Torres, the only other U.S. swimmer to make five Olympic teams, distinguished herself as the oldest swimmer (41) to win an Olympic medal.
Phelps made the team for what he swears will be a final time with a swim he called harder than any in his life. He did it by going out hard and hoping to hang on, the same way he has managed to hang on and push forward despite a tidal wave of personal drama.
“With everything that’s happened, sort of being able to come back…,” he said, leaving incomplete a thought that anyone who knows his well-publicized back story would be able to finish.
Phelps led the field by a second at 100 meters and .79 seconds at 150. His final 50, which Phelps called “awful,” would be second slowest of the eight finalists, but he still gained some ground and a win by .97 seconds over runner-up Tom Shields.
“Getting on the team was the only thing I had to do tonight,” Phelps said.
Phelps’ unexceptional final time, 1 minute, 54.84 seconds, was slower than those with which he had won the previous three Olympic Trials in the 200 fly. It left him as just the sixth-fastest 200 butterfly swimmer in the world this season.
Yet the victory also included another historic number: no U.S. swimmer ever had won the trials four times in the same event.
“By no means am I happy about going 1:54,” Phelps said. “I’m happy about being able to represent my country at the Olympic Games.”
He will try to do it in two more events: the 100 butterfly and 200 individual medley. In a meet that so far has been hard on older champions, he is withstanding the test of Father Time.
Phelps’ career has been so repetitively remarkable for so long that sometimes it is easy to be numbed into forgetting just how extraordinary his achievements are.
That makes USA Swimming National Team Director Frank Busch’s summary of Phelps’ career worth hearing, no matter that Busch’s analysis is something that has been said in other ways by other people many times before.
“Michael is the most dominant, accomplished athlete our sport has ever seen, the athlete that has brought swimming to the forefront of the American people,” Busch said.
Phelps has competed in 24 Olympic events, more than any swimmer in history. He won medals in all but two – the 200 butterfly in 2000, when he took fifth; and the 200 freestyle in 2012, when he was fourth. His overall medal count, 22, and the gold count, 18, both are Olympic records.
He has won 33 medals (26 golds), both records, at the biennial long course world championships. He has set the record for world records, with 29 in five individual long course events, three (400 IM, 100, 200 butterfly) of which still stand.
“Some of those records are just ridiculous,” he said, clearly a bit awestruck by what he had been able to do.
His records and personal best times are at least seven years old, testifying to Phelps’ nonpareil brilliance at his peak. He set his first world record in the 200 butterfly at age 15 – the youngest man ever to have a swimming world record – and then broke it seven times. The last five (there’s that number again) remain the five fastest times anyone has swum in the event.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve had a best time,” Phelps said. “I’d like to have maybe one before I retire.”
Busch noted Phelps got a little help setting the records from the high-tech suits legal until the start of 2010, even if he wore only the bottom. But no one else, even those who wore the full body suit, was able to swim close to that fast.
“Those were Michael’s ‘on’ years,” Busch said. “His fastball was unhittable at that time.”
That Phelps has rarely approached those times also owes partly to his repeated indifference to training since 2009. He had that attitude for most of the six years between his having won eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and his returning to the sport in 2015 after USA Swimming suspended him six months for a second DUI arrest.
That was the moment that seemingly scared him straight and eventually led him to recapture passion for a sport he had come to pursue grudgingly at best. He had wanted to be anywhere but a pool, and on the days he did train, his behavior often led to shouting matches with Bob Bowman, his coach of 20 years.
All that has become part of a personal re-creation story Phelps has told frequently over the past several months.
He has bared his soul at length to Sports Illustrated, ESPN and the New York Times, in stories that recounted his thoughts of suicide, his rehab stay, his long estrangement from and recent reconciliation with his father. Phelps’ description of his estrangement and reconciliation with swimming has become something of a mantra, so often has he uttered it.
“Going into (the 2012 Olympics), I didn’t want to do it,” he said at a press conference last Saturday. “I tried to fake it. I wanted to get in and out as fast as I could and really wanted nothing to do with it.”
He had retired after the London Games. Then, tired of golf and being overweight, he began training again in 2013 and was swimming relatively well, if not with full commitment, before the arrest in the fall of 2014.
“I’m just a lot happier doing what I’m doing now, and that’s why I’ve been able to be successful the past two years,” he said.
|"Boomer embracing his "taper" before dad's 200 fly." -Hilary Phelps|
His happiness increased exponentially when he became a father himself, to a son, Boomer Robert, whom his fiancée, Nicole Johnson, delivered three weeks early on May 5. Mom and infant are with him in Omaha, giving Boomer his only chance to see dad swim in the United States, a memory he will be able to recall by watching and reading about it.
The little boy was sound asleep when Phelps brought him the flowers and stuffed animal that have been among the spoils of victory in this meet. He wasn’t sure if Boomer was awake during the race or if he had slept undisturbed through the noise from a CenturyLink Center sellout crowd of 14,379.
He gave Boomer a kiss. The response was a couple grumbles, a noise that dad had made all too often for a long time when he thought about being near a pool. That it was the son grumbling after a race instead of his father made swimming sound sweet again to Michael Phelps.
Philip Hersh, who has covered 17 Olympic Games and was the Chicago Tribune’s Olympic specialist for 30 years, is a contributor to TeamUSA.org.