Familiar faces Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin waited until Day 4 of the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials to stamp their tickets to Rio. Here are five thoughts from Wednesday’s events in Omaha:
Michael, the master
This is a very different Michael Phelps from the one who half-trained his way through the London Games with an indifference that would not have pleased the Phelps of 2004 or ‘08. The Phelps we’re seeing ahead of Rio is thankful, emotional and thoughtful. Maybe that’s due to his role as a new father, or because of the multiple second chances he got to straighten things out away from the pool, but as Phelps reached the wall to win the 200-meter butterfly, the race that earned him his first Olympic berth 16 years ago as a 15-year old, the appreciation was sincere. “I don’t know if he would recognize who I am today,” Phelps said of his younger self, “but I definitely recognize him.” That younger self is the Phelps who would readily express his joy at his craft.
And the joy was back on Wednesday night, even if his fast times weren’t. Phelps’s winning time, 1:54.84, was well off from his world record of 1:51.51, but the time appeared to be secondary. After the race, his fiancée, Nicole, brought their son, Boomer, to the edge of the pool deck. Phelps planted a kiss on Boomer, whose closed eyes hinted that he was negative splitting his alertness for the rest of the meet. “Those last 20 meters,” Phelps said, “the piano fell pretty hard.”
Phelps’s qualification impressed champions across the Olympic sports landscape. “Wow. No words,” tweeted Nastia Liukin, the Olympic all-around gymnastics champion in 2008. “Congratulations, Michael Phelps on your fifth Olympic Games. What an inspiration.”
Ledecky does it again
What can’t Katie Ledecky do? The distance freestyle queen further cemented her claim as the best 200-meter freestyler in the land, winning that sprint race in 1:54.88 on Wednesday. Ledecky’s range is astounding. Last year, she won world titles in freestyle races ranging from the 200 that many expected would give her trouble, through 1500. This year, with no 1500 on the Olympic program, she’ll try her hand at the 100, with prelims starting Thursday morning. She could then swim on multiple relays in Rio depending on what she can handle and what the coaching staff asks her to do. After her victory Wednesday, Ledecky’s coach Bruce Gemmell, was walking with her in a hallway outside the pool and told her jokingly, “Hey, the clock’s ticking. I have 12 hours to teach you how to swim a hundred free.”
Missy didn’t miss
A day after it appeared that Missy Franklin’s chase for another Olympics was in free fall, the four-time London gold medalist pulled behind Ledecky into second with a time of 1:56.18. The placement guaranteed her a spot in the individual 200 free and the 4×200-meter relay in Rio.
“It’s probably the most proud race of my career, coming back from the loss last night,” Franklin said. After earning her spot, Franklin, 21, returned to her normally bubbly demeanor, hopping up and down as she watched on a monitor as Phelps won his race right after hers. This isn’t the same Franklin who won two gold medals in backstroke events and two more in relays at the London Olympics. She has been beset with back ailments, and though it was admirable for to keep her collegiate eligibility for two years so she could swim at Cal, some felt that the lifestyle left her less focused on swimming than she needed to be. “It’s a different challenge this year,” she said. “It’s still the same idea that I have to get every last ounce of energy out of myself.” That is much more positive energy after Wednesday night.
DiRado’s mighty medley
Maybe the Olympic trials’ crucible is easier to manage for those with a Plan B. Maya DiRado is just 23, but she plans to leave her swimming career behind her after this summer to take a job as a business analyst in the fall. But right now, Plan A is going pretty well, too. DiRado already made the team in the 400 individual medley and on Wednesday she won the 200 IM in 2:09.54, pulling away from second-place finisher Melanie Margalis in the closing freestyle leg. Margalis finished in 2:10.11 and barely edged Caitlin Leverenz for third by .05 of a second. DiRado trailed after the butterfly leg, but took a slight lead by the 100-meter mark and was in command from then on. “I could kind of see where I was and obviously I was sprinting as hard as I could,” she said, “but it’s nice when you don’t feel them gaining on you. That’s kind of a little bit of relief. So I just put my head down and charged home.” DiRado is also the No. 2 seed in the 200 backstroke and could swim a freestyle leg in Rio, too. She wouldn’t be the first swimmer here to change her mind about retiring. “No, this will be it,” insists DiRado, who married Stanford swimmer Rob Andrews last year, “and that’s why I can enjoy every minute.”
Some big names qualified for the men’s 100-meter freestyle final on Thursday. Nathan Adrian, the defending Olympic champ in the hundred free, cruised to the evening’s fastest time by winning his semifinal in 47.91 seconds, followed by Ryan Held in 48.48. Anthony Ervin qualified fifth in 48.71 and Conor Dwyer caught the last spot, placing eighth in 49.18. It has been a long road for Ervin, 35, who tied Gary Hall Jr. for Olympic gold at 50 free in 2000. He later auctioned off his gold medal to aid victims of the Asian tsunami in 2004. By making the team in London, where he placed fifth in the 50 free, Ervin achieved the rare feat of making an Olympic team in his teens and 30s, but not his 20s. With relays open to the top four swimmers (and likely the top six), Ervin has a realistic chance to get back to the Games again.