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By John Lohn
OMAHA, Nebraska, June 28. A sense of nostalgia hit right around 7:12 p.m. (CDT) at the CenturyLink Center on Thursday night. That's the time Michael Phelps stepped onto the blocks for the championship final of the 200 butterfly at the United States Olympic Trials. Less than two minutes later, he was triumphant, bound for the Olympics in his prime event for the fourth consecutive time.
Why the nostalgic feeling? That's easy. In the event which launched the Phelps phenomenon and a spectacular era in the sport, only three races remain. After that, the only time we'll see the Baltimore Bullet in the 200 fly will be in highlight packages, or when we fire up the DVR. It's a realization we're going to have to accept.
Phelps won his last 200 fly at an Olympic Trials easily, clocking the fastest time in the world this year, a performance of 1:53.65. Tyler Clary, behind a late surge, earned his first Olympic ticket with a second-place mark of 1:55.12. Clary, known for his ability to close a race strongly, zipped by Bobby Bollier in the last 15 meters.
It's been 12 years since Phelps broke onto the international scene by placing second in the 200 fly at the 2000 Olympic Trials. He was a 15-year-old at the time, and handling arduous schedules at major international competitions was still a few years away. What we did know in Indy, based on the way he rallied down the final lap, was that this kid would be something special.
While Tom Malchow was ahead of the field for the majority of the 200 fly in Indianapolis, many eyes — at least at the end — were on Phelps. On the final lap, he split 30.02 to overtake Jeff Somensatto, whose closing lap was 31.66. The ability to run down the competition was on display for the first time, and eventually became a trademark. Ask Ian Crocker or Milorad Cavic, both Olympic victims of the Phelpsian surge, albeit in the 100 fly
Crocker experienced the hard-charging force of Phelps at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, losing out when Phelps went ahead in the final few meters. Cavic, though, felt the wrath in even harsher fashion. At the 2008 Olympics, Phelps pulled off one of the most stunning victories we'll ever see when he took an extra half-stroke at the finish to prevail by a hundredth of a second. The by-a-fingernail win was yet another fortuitous aspect of Phelps' medal haul in Beijing. For good measure, Phelps has defeated Crocker and Cavic in come-from-behind form at the World Championships, too. It's what he does.
Has any swimmer ever dominated an event like Phelps? He's held the world record in the 200 fly for more than a decade and has been basically untouchable. Sure, he's dropped a few races in Grand Prix competition, but he's never been seriously pushed at the Olympics or World Champs. His world record of 1:51.51 is more than a second faster than the No. 2 performer in history, Hungarian Laszlo Cseh (1:52.70).
The superlatives, however, don't end there. Phelps owns the four-fastest times in history, and five of the swiftest six marks. Even when his goggles filled with water at the 2008 Olympics, threatening to derail his drive for eight gold medals, Phelps stayed focused and beat Cseh by nearly a second, going 1:52.03. What might have been if he could have seen the whole way? We'll never know. But the whole situation only adds to his legend.
Although no one has managed to keep pace with Phelps in his specialty, his presence has made the event stronger and deeper. This year, three other men have broken 1:55 heading into the Olympiad. Last year, five other men accomplished the feat. Simply put, the days of celebrating a swim of 1:55 are gone.
Now, the end is near. After two Olympic titles, five world championships and eight world record records, Phelps can count — on one hand — the number of 200 fly races which remain. As he ticks them off the to-do list, take a moment to appreciate every stroke. It's superiority that won't likely be seen for a long time.
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