OMAHA, Neb. – Michael Phelps is 31, so in the world of elite swimming, he certainly can be affected by the physiological. His can-I-get-you-a-cane walk following an event or two in the U.S. Olympic trials showed that. But even after four Olympic appearances, with one more to come, it is clear that the man who has long stood on the block and intimidated other swimmers by his mere presence can be affected by the psychological, too.
“I have a lot of emotion here,” Phelps said.
As he walked on the pool deck Saturday night at CenturyLink Center one final time, the emotion from the crowd poured back. Four years ago, Phelps said goodbye – only to return for an encore wave. It turned out to be an emphatic one, with kisses blown after what would appear to be his final race in an American pool, a victory in the 100-meter butterfly that gives him another event to swim in next month’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Over five Olympic trials dating from when he was 15, Phelps posted 16 victories. He is assured of a chance at four medals in Rio – in his three individual events, the 100 and 200 butterflies and the 200 individual medley, as well as in the medley relay, in which he likely will swim the butterfly leg – and may well be a candidate in either of the freestyle relays as well, even leaving open the possibility that he will swim a time trial in the 100 free Sunday morning just to post a time. So take those record 22 Olympic medals and add to them.
“He is who he is,” runner-up Tom Shields said. “And you gotta give him that respect.”
The respect this time around, though, is deeper because Phelps is different. He was asked Saturday night about his physical well-being after he swam two races in one session Friday – a heat of the 100 fly as well as the final of the 200 IM, which he won. He talked about how his body reacted but immediately turned, unprompted, to the emotional toll of this meet, his first major competition since the birth of his 5-month-old son, Boomer.
“With Boomer and with family here and being my last meet on American soil – there was a lot going on this week,” he said. “But I’m happy that we did everything we wanted to do.”
On a busy night that closed the most hectic portion of this eight-day event – only the women’s 50 free and men’s 1,500 free remain in Sunday night’s session – Phelps’s winning performance in 51 seconds flat stood out but wasn’t alone. Joining him as a star of this meet – but with a much lower profile – was Maya DiRado, who beat 2012 Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin in the 200 backstroke, DiRado’s third victory of the meet. Katie Ledecky, the world record holder in the 800 free, couldn’t top her own mark in that event but won easily, also her third win of these trials.
And in one final splash, Nathan Adrian won the 50 free in 21.51 seconds, just a hundredth of a second ahead of Anthony Ervin, the 35-year-old who will swim in his third Olympics as the oldest member of the team.
The American team, then, is close to being set, and it clearly has a different feel than it has in the recent past. Gone are stalwarts who came here and couldn’t make it, such as Natalie Coughlin, Matt Grevers, Cullen Jones and Tyler Clary, and others who retired after the London Games.
There also will be reshaped expectations for some stand-bys. Franklin, a four-time Olympic gold medalist as a 17-year-old in 2012, had to overcome the initial disappointment of failing to make the team in the 100 back, an event she won in London, and came here trying to deal with expectations and pressure with which she was unfamiliar.
“I learned a lot at this meet about how to deal with that, and I don’t think that all kind of hit me until I got here,” Franklin said. “So it’s very good for me to take into consideration that, you know, I still need to prepare for that even though I may not be feeling it at the time, so if I come in and all of a sudden I do feel the pressure, I know how to handle it.”
Phelps knows how to handle it, even if his emotions here were somewhat unfamiliar to him. In 2012, when he made what he then thought was his last run at a team, he was almost disconnected from the sport, swimming because he had to, not because he wanted to. Here, he said repeatedly: “I wanted to do this for me.”
Because he is above all else a racer, that pushed him to the end. When he walked into the venue Saturday afternoon, he started thinking about his last race before American fans. Any question of motivation was stripped away when he turned to his coach of two decades, Bob Bowman.
“I said to Bob before, ‘There’s not a . . . ” and he nodded his head and paused, failing to audibly fill in the curse words used for emphasis, “chance that I’m losing my last race on American soil. Afterwards, he kind of said to me, I knew you were going to win after you said that.’ I was determined and fired up today.”
His times here weren’t necessarily to his liking. He believes he must improve to rack up medals in Rio. But if there’s an impression Michael Phelps left over his week at his final trials, it’s that when he says he is determined and fired up, he now means it.