An Olympic Trials 200 Butterfly Final Without Michael Phelps? Strange, But a Chance to Relive Memories

michael-phelps-

An Olympic Trials 200 Butterfly Final Without Michael Phelps? Strange, But a Chance to Relive Memories

We knew the day was coming. We’ve known it for five years, ever since he bid farewell to the sport at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Sure, there were a few hopeful holdouts. They wanted one more run, one more chance to see The GOAT work his craft in a way only the likes of Beethoven or Monet could understand.

But Michael Phelps had a plan, and when the United States won the 400-meter medley relay in Rio, the end had arrived. Twenty-eight Olympic medals. Twenty-three gold. More than three dozen world records. Millions of youngsters inspired and introduced to the water. A sport redefined. A man deserving of retirement.

For nearly two decades, Phelps was the face of his sport, and a force very rarely stopped. With his retirement, there would be a void. Of course, there would be successors on which USA Swimming could rely. Caeleb Dressel will star this week at the United States Olympic Trials in Omaha, and then compete as one of the most-watched athletes at next month’s Olympic Games in Tokyo. Ryan Murphy is a backstroke icon. Michael Andrew has backed up the precocious success he enjoyed as an age-group phenom.

Ah, but there is something different about a Trials without Phelps. While he has been present at the CHI Health Center, his role of spectator, fan and father is different from the King Fish identity that he long held. This Trials marks the first without Phelps since 1996, when the likes of Tom Dolan, Amy Van Dyken and Jeff Rouse were vying for home-Olympic invitations to the Games in Atlanta. That’s 25 years. Before Katie Ledecky was born. Long before Regan Smith. A time when Chase Kalisz was in diapers.

This column could have been written in the days or weeks before the Olympic Trials. It could have been penned on the opening night of the meet. Yet, it felt more appropriate to write it now, on what was the fourth night of Trials. See, on this evening, the final of the 200 butterfly was held, with Zach Harting (1:55.06) and Gunnar Bentz (1:55.34) securing Team USA berths to Tokyo. It’s the event that launched Phelps’ career, the discipline that introduced him to the sporting world as a 15-year-old. That two different faces will stand on the blocks in Tokyo and represent the Stars and Stripes is, well, kind of odd – even if it was a foregone conclusion.

Remember when it started? He walked the deck at the 2000 Olympic Trials in Indianapolis in anonymity. Coaches and the most diehard fans knew of his potential. And the Baltimore Sun, through the keen work of veteran journalist Paul McMullen, shed light on the precocious teen. Otherwise, his world was the antithesis of the inescapable spotlight that would follow him for the remainder of his competitive days.

Through three rounds of building excellence, Phelps gave the world a glimpse of what was to come. There was a prelim performance of 1:58.61, good for a National Age Group record in the 15-16 classification. He got a little faster in the semifinals, going 1:58.24. Then came the final, the lid on his talent fully removed.

When Phelps was 11, and Bob Bowman was in the infancy of mentoring his protege at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, he sat down with Phelps’ parents and told them their little boy was going to be an Olympian – and it might just happen soon. The prescience of Bowman makes for a great anecdote and – through the lens of two decades past – speaks to the understanding the future Hall of Fame coach had of his athlete.

In the final in Indy, Phelps hit the 150-meter mark in fourth place, only to unleash a closing flourish that enabled him to run down all but eventual Olympic champion Tom Malchow and secure a place on the Sydney Olympic team. En route to a time of 1:57.48, the way Phelps closed served as an appetizer for the late-race greatness that would define his career.

The next month, at the Sydney Olympic Games, Phelps placed fifth in the final of the 200 fly, a mere .33 off the podium. The way he dropped large chunks of time at Trials and then in his first Games suggests that with a couple of more weeks, he might have captured the first medal of his career.

By March of the next year, Phelps was the world-record holder in the event, United States Nationals in Austin the site of a 1:54.92 performance that erased Malchow’s name from the record books. Seven more world records would come in the 200 fly and by the time Hungarian Kristof Milak broke Phelps’ last standard at the 2019 World Championships, the American had been on top of the event for 18 years. It was, and always will be, his baby.

There were Olympic crowns in 2004 and 2008, and another Olympic title in 2016, that victory returning to Phelps what he lost in 2012, when South African Chad Le Clos edged him at the wall. Five years after that redemption swim, Phelps is in the stands, and the United States needs a boost in the event that sparked a legend. The times posted by Harting and Bentz to qualify for Tokyo will not contend. This year alone, seven men have been faster than Harting, with 11 quicker than Bentz. More, Phelps’ last Olympic win arrived in 1:53.36. Obviously, considerable work remains, and perhaps improvements will be made in the next month.

In the meantime, Phelps is missed.

Yes, the day was coming. For four years, and then another thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, we were well aware that the final of the 200 butterfly at the 2020ne United States Olympic Trials would not feature Michael Phelps. But even in the face of long-known reality, it is odd to not see him. No arm flaps. No low and long stroke to admire. No presence of a man as reliable as they have ever come.

It’s a strange feeling.