OMAHA, Neb. – One last time for the last time, Ryan Lochte vs. Michael Phelps.
For the final time on American soil – or in American water, if you will – two of the four faces you'd put on the Mount Rushmore of United States men's swimming will face off in a major meet. They will contest the 200-meter individual medley Friday night at the Olympic Trials, and the other six finalists will be mere crowd extras.
This is Federer-Nadal. Manning-Brady. Bird-Magic. Palmer-Nicklaus. Except bigger, because most of the world only pays attention every four years. The fact that both men have sustained their greatness for this long in a burnout sport is amazing.
And in terms of competitiveness, this will be a match race. The No. 3 seed entering the event, Will Licon of Texas, scratched the race to concentrate on the 200 breaststroke Thursday night (in which he finished third by the cruel margin of .14 seconds). The No. 4 seed, Chase Kalisz, also scratched.
So the closest contenders, distant as they were on paper, have been cleared away to make room for a match race with no real loser. The top two will both make the American Olympic team.
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OMAHA, Neb. – When Michael Phelps made his first Olympic team, the media asked him if he had a girlfriend. And whether he’d kissed her yet.
The kid was 15 at the time. The year was 2000.
“I remember him,” Phelps said Wednesday night, smiling at the memory of his younger self. “I definitely remember him.”
A day shy of his 31st birthday, Phelps kissed his girlfriend in front of 14,000 people. He had just made his fifth Olympic team – most ever for an American male swimmer – and while soaking in the adulation in CenturyLink Center he planted a smooch on Nicole Johnson. He also kissed his sound-asleep, 7-week-old son, Boomer.
So, yeah, a lot has changed for Michael Phelps between his first and last Olympic berths as a 200-meter butterflyer.
Here is one more thing that can be said after winning the 200-meter butterfly Wednesday: the man has been an Olympian for more than half his life. And every one of those Olympic competitions have included his pet event, the 200 fly.
Less than a year after that trials breakthrough, Phelps became the first male to break the 1:55 barrier. He took Malchow’s world record and, to this day, has never relinquished it.
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OMAHA, Neb. – On a night at the Olympic Trials when the old guard of American swimming was fully under siege, Zach Harting applied the final flourish of insouciance.
The 18-year-old Louisville sophomore came strutting out for his semifinal heat of the 200-meter butterfly wearing a Batman mask. Keep in mind, the kid was about ready to race Michael Phelps His Ownself, in front of 14,132 fans. And here he was pointing into the CenturyLink Center stands, egging on the crowd, turning this pressurized moment into a Halloween gag.
"I just thought, 'I'm going to do what Batman does – I'm going to kick some butt,' " said Harting, who is, shall we say, a quirky young man. "It kind of loosened me up. I'm sure [Phelps] thought, 'What's that kid doing?' "
That's probably what a lot of longtime stars of the sport thought while they were being swept aside in something of a hostile takeover of the American Olympic lineup. Four finals were contested Tuesday night, and all four were won by first-time Olympians.
Now it's happening.
We will see whether it produces a good team.
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OMAHA, Neb. – This is what the Ledecky Effect looks like in action:
It looks like Leah Smith swimming out of her skin, smashing through her own perceived limits at the U.S. Olympic swim trials, earning a spot on the American team and recording a time that will make the rest of the world take notice.
And Leah Smith lost by nearly two full seconds.
But it’s who the Virginia senior-to-be lost to that made this swim remarkable. She lost to the most dominant athlete on the planet, Katie Ledecky, who dropped the third-fastest 400-meter freestyle time in history (3 minutes, 58.98 seconds), and whose winning streak in this event stretches back four years, to when she finished third in this very meet.
Everyone loses to Ledecky; it’s just a matter of margin of defeat. And this race was notably close.
“I’ve never been able to see her feet before,” Smith said. “That was exciting.”
That is the new measure of competing with Katie. If you can see her feet one lane over, you’re hauling.
“I wanted to go 4:02 or 4:01 in this meet,” Smith said.
Instead, chasing Ledecky pushed her beyond her own goals.
OMAHA, Neb. – Ryan Lochte moved with aching slowness down the steps from the pool deck in CenturyLink Center, each step obviously painful.
The old warrior of American swimming, willing to swim the brutal 400-meter individual medley in his 30s, was all but carried out of the arena on his shield. Dealing with a groin pull from the morning preliminary session, Lochte faltered in the final 200 meters and finished third – and third place is death at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Only the top two advance to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Those two were a pair of Georgia Bulldogs: Chase Kalisz, heir to the 400 IM throne from his lifelong mentor and idol, Michael Phelps; and hard-closing Jay Litherland, a triplet who is only distinguishable from swimming brothers Kevin and Mick by his prowess in the water.
Lochte was left behind. And left to wonder how great a toll the 400 IM has taken on his hopes of making a fourth American Olympic team.
Lochte was unlikely to swim all those events at peak health. Now the question is how compromised he could be by the groin pull, and which events could be jeopardized.
Now he is. And for the time being, Ryan Lochte is not.
We went to the neighborhood swim meet Monday. There were the usual comic catastrophes.
The boy who was trying to swim butterfly with his goggles rolled down under his nose. The girl with her cap on sideways. The 8-and-under who dove in and swam the wrong stroke. The crying 6-year-olds.
Years ago, those kids were my kids – crying over cold water and bursting with pride when they won a heat ribbon. Watching that and remembering those days, it’s hard to grasp the reality of where they are now.
Specifically, they are in Omaha for the Olympic Swim Trials – the Super Bowl of American swimming. Representing the Lakeside Seahawks of Louisville, Ky., my 17-year-old daughter, Brooke, and 19-year-old son, Clayton, will compete in the 400-meter individual medley Sunday in front of as many as 14,000 people. Brooke also will compete later in the week in the 200 IM, 200 butterfly and 200 breaststroke. Oldest son Mitchell, a swimmer at the University of Missouri, narrowly missed qualifying and will be working for USA Swimming during the Trials in a journalistic role.
And I really don’t know how to act.
But this? This is the biggest sporting event of my life. By far.
OMAHA, Neb. — The first day of interviews at the U.S. Olympic Trials for swimming very quickly became a discussion on doping.
Two-time American Olympian Elizabeth Beisel was asked whether she was confident the Rio de Janeiro Games would be clean. Her response: "No, I'm not. I'm definitely not."
David Marsh, who will coach the U.S. women's team in Rio, said, "We've a long way to go. We are not at a point where we can say that there are no drugs in our sport, there's no cheaters in our sport, and I think until we do it's inherent that we all keep calling for it, and we all keep looking for ways to create a level, fair playing field of real human being performance."
And that was before everyone heard the news Friday afternoon that the World Antidoping Association had suspended the Rio laboratory that was set to handle drug testing at the Olympics come August.
So there is pronounced concern about how fair the competition will be in Rio. But nobody was announcing any concerns about the cleanliness of the Trials, which begin Sunday.
For two decades, America has dominated the world in men’s backstroke. The United States has won every 100-meter back gold medal in the last five Olympics.
The most recent continuation of this hegemony has its roots in an unlikely place: tulips.
Yes, the flower.
If it weren’t for the tulip acumen developed as a third-generation Dutch flower farmer, Ed Grevers would not have earned an internship in a floricultural research exchange program at Michigan State University in 1970-71. “Typical Dutch knowledge – wooden shoes, dikes, tulip bulbs,” Ed joked.
If he hadn’t beaten out competition from hundreds of other applicants from The Netherlands for that internship, he would not have left the small town of Wasenaar for the U.S. If he hadn’t come to the U.S., he would not have applied for a job after that internship as a flower-bulb grower in Chicago – he was the only person who answered the ad. If he hadn’t gotten that job, he wouldn’t have been able to stay in America.
Grevers bloomed where he was planted. On American soil.
Matt Grevers did not inherit his father’s green thumb.
But Matt did immerse himself in the family’s other primary interest: swimming.
Grevers said he never thought about it.
The Michael Andrew Experiment reaches a critical stage next week.
The kid who was the youngest American swimmer ever to turn pro will compete in his first Olympic Trials in Omaha. He reportedly will swim five events and is unlikely to make the U.S. team, but figures to have a puncher’s chance in the 100-meter breaststroke. Beyond that, this meet will serve as something of a referendum on how one of the most controversial parent-child relationships in American youth sports is going.
Andrew is 17 now, but he was 14 when he signed his first endorsement contract with a nutrition supplement manufacturer. There has been a lot of age-group records broken, a lot of media attention (by swimming standards) and a lot of arched eyebrows within the sport ever since.
Andrew is a very good swimmer with the potential for greatness. But is he getting great guidance and coaching within the bubble his parents have constructed around him?
No teammates. No classmates. Turned pro two years younger than Michael Phelps – who was much more accomplished when he first got paid than Andrew was then or is today.
Maya DiRado has lived her life on an accelerated timetable.
She skipped second grade because it wasn’t challenging enough. She was 13 when she went to high school, 15 when she got a perfect SAT math score and 17 when she entered Stanford. She got married at 22. Now 23, she has a high-powered job as a business analyst with McKinsey & Company in Atlanta waiting for her in September.
But this poster child for precocity is paradoxically behind the phenom curve when it comes to the one thing that could make her an American darling this summer: swimming.
The sport has long been a breeding ground for female teen stars. Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin were household names and gold medalists four years ago as high schoolers. Elizabeth Beisel, age 23 like DiRado, has made the past two American Olympic teams. Allison Schmitt was 18 when she swam in the Beijing Games.
DiRado? Not quite. Her swimming timetable was always a tick too slow.
“In age-group swimming there’s always some kid who is extremely fast, and everyone would go, ‘Ooooh, she’s really fast,’ “ said Maya’s father, Ruben. “She was never that kid. She was the kid who would lose to that kid.”
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