OMAHA, Neb. – The great butterfly swimmers are masters of illusion. They make the hardest and most grueling stroke look easy.
And the greatest of all butterflyers makes it look easiest. That would be Michael Phelps, whose unwavering undulation is so graceful it should be set to a Mozart concerto – even though he's really working his tail off.
Thursday night at the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials he swam his signature event, the 200 fly, for one of the last times. The result was the usual: Phelps won easily, posting the fastest time in the world this year: 1 minute, 53.65 seconds.
"Today was the best my stroke has felt throughout the whole meet," Phelps said. "All in all I'm pleased, but I think I need to go faster if I want to win that at the Olympics."
Unless something disastrous happens, he will swim his signature event just three more times before floating off into the sunset: the preliminaries, semifinals and finals in London. He won gold in the 200m fly in both 2004 and 2008, and those 200m fly swims in the Games should be appointment viewing for all sports fans.
"I was just thinking about it today, this is my fourth Olympics in this event," Phelps said, the first one being way back in 2000 in Sydney. "So it's special to me, special to my family, special to my mom. I have a couple of weeks to perfect some things that I'm going to need if I want to end with a good one.
"The person who finishes the race best is going to win. You can't win the race taking it out fast."
It was a relaxing morning and a rewarding night for Phelps and North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammate Allison Schmitt, who obliterated the field in winning the 200m freestyle – her second victory of the trials. Phelps said he and Schmitt spent the morning eating room-service breakfast and watching "Act of Valor" at the Hilton across the street from the pool, then showed up ready to perform at night.
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"It was nice to sleep in," said Phelps, who had scratched out of the 100m freestyle preliminaries Thursday morning.
What has become standard operating procedure for Phelps was a euphoric breakthrough for runner-up Tyler Clary. He finished a hard-luck third in the 400m IM to Ryan Lochte and Phelps, but a furious finish in the 200m fly got him the ticket to London by .67 seconds over Bobby Bollier.
After a series of near-misses at trials, Clary quickly exited the water and embraced family members at pool side.
"I said, 'It's pretty cool to make your first one,' " Phelps recalled. "And he goes, 'You have no idea how good that feels.' It was definitely cool to watch his excitement."
Meanwhile, Lochte, Phelps' competition for the top of the marquee in Omaha (and London), scratched from the Friday night final of the 100m free.
"I have a hard double tomorrow," Lochte said. "A 200 back, 200 IM. … We made a plan going into this meet that I was just going to do semifinals of 100 free."
[ Slideshow: Phelps and Lochte go head-to-head at Olympic Trials ]
Lochte's fifth-place finish in that semis should earn him a spot on the U.S. 400m freestyle relay, which will be strongly challenged to repeat the gold medal it won in 2008 thanks to the unforgettable comeback anchor swim by Jason Lezak.
As it turns out, Lezak's chances of making the Olympic team got a boost from Lochte's scratch. That helped boost Lezak into the eight-man 100m free final after a disappointing semifinal swim.
Lochte related his conversation with Lezak climbing out of the pool after their 100m semi.
Lezack to Lochte: "Are you scratching?"
Lochte to Lezak: "Yes."
Lezak to Lochte: "Thank you."
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