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By John Lohn
OMAHA, Nebraska, June 28. HEALTHY debate is part of the fabric of sports. Who should win the MVP award? Is this guy a Hall of Famer? Should so-and-so have been pulled in the sixth inning? Why was that play called? These questions are just a smattering of the queries which get sports fans going, and which elicit passion.
This morning, there is some debate over Michael Phelps' decision to scratch from the 100 freestyle at the United States Olympic Trials. It was a move that was announced Wednesday night by his longtime coach Bob Bowman, but was not overly surprising. After all, few thought Phelps would race through all three rounds of the event.
What was a possibility was Phelps contesting the preliminary round, giving him the chance to post a time for digestion. Now that he is not pursuing that avenue, a debate started in some circles: If Phelps doesn't show any hand in the 100 free, how can he be a member of the 400 freestyle relay in London? There's an easy answer to that question. He's Michael Phelps, and his track record speaks for itself.
In no way should Phelps have been mandated to show his worth in the 100 free, even for a single round and for just under 50 seconds. The man is not only the greatest Olympian in history, he has been a staple of the American 400 free relay since the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Have we forgotten what he's done as the leadoff leg through the years? If so, here's a refresher.
* At the 2006 Pan Pacific Championships, his opening leg sparked the United States to a world record.
* At the 2007 World Championships, he opened the victorious relay in 48.42, a time faster than what it took to capture the individual title in the 100 free.
* As the United States rode Jason Lezak's spectacular anchor leg to gold at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Phelps jumpstarted the effort with an American-record showing of 47.51.
* At the 2009 World Champs, his opening leg of 47.78 fueled the United States to another win over France.
* At the Pan Pacific Championships in 2010, Phelps' leadoff split of 48.13 paced the way for another United States triumph.
* Last year, despite the United States earning the bronze medal at the World Championships, Phelps produced a leadoff of 48.08.
Based on the aforementioned body of work, and the fact that Phelps is in good form, it's ridiculous to ask him to prove he belongs. It is highly unlikely the United States — at these Trials — will see four times that are better than what Phelps can bring to the table. And, if that scenario unfolds, Phelps would have the chance to solidify his spot at the squad's training camp.
Could you imagine the United States going to battle at the Olympic Games without Phelps on that relay? Absolutely not. It's more inane to think it should happen just because he didn't step onto the blocks in Omaha. It's guaranteed that Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks don't audition for movie roles. Nor should Phelps have to audition for a relay slot.
The same, however, can't be said for Ryan Lochte. Because Lochte doesn't have the portfolio of Phelps in the 100 freestyle, he is in a proving-ground situation. For Lochte, the preliminaries and semifinals of the 100 free are his opportunities to show he belongs. He doesn't need to see the event through to the championship final, but he'll need to record a time which challenges what we'll see in the final tomorrow night.
Beyond Phelps and Lochte, the championship final of the 100 freestyle is a critical event for the United States in its preparations for London. With Australia dropping the hammer at its Olympic Trials back in March, thanks to James Magnussen clocking 47.10 and James Roberts checking in at 47.63, the U.S. has a target. If nothing else, it needs some performances — from Nathan Adrian, Jimmy Feigen and Garrett Weber-Gale, among others — to demonstrate it can challenge the Aussies.
As for Phelps, he can enjoy the morning off. There's no reason for him to be here.
Follow John Lohn on Twitter: @JohnLohn