Jack Conger and Pace Clark Ring in the Post-Phelps Era in 200 Fly

Photos Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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By David Rieder.

As long as Michael Phelps was around in swimming, the U.S. did not have much else going on in the 200 fly. But now that the greatest of all-time has given way to the likes of Jack Conger and Pace Clark, those two have a streak of futility to crack.

Since Tom Malchow picked up a bronze in the event at the 2003 World Championships, no American besides Phelps has been on the podium in the event at a World Championships or Olympics. More recently, between 2013 and 2016, only one other American besides Phelps broke 1:55 in the event.

That one who did break through during that span was Conger, who swam a 1:54.54 at U.S. Nationals in San Antonio in 2015—only to be totally overshadowed as Phelps won the race in 1:52.94, the fastest time anyone in the world had swum in the event in six years.

But Conger couldn’t convert that swim into a strong performance at Olympic Trials. One day after making his first Olympic team in the 200 free, Conger finished third in the 200 fly behind Phelps and Tom Shields, finishing in a time (1:56.45) that was almost two seconds off his personal best.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

The most painful fact: Conger’s time from the year before would not only have not only made the Olympic team—it would have won the race, even ahead of Phelps (1:54.84). He was still heading to Rio for relay action, but the fact that he couldn’t get the job done in his signature event bothered Conger.

So he did something about it. Tuesday night at U.S. Nationals, he led wire-to-wire in the men’s 200 fly final, winning his first national title and booking a spot to swim an individual event at a major meet for the first time.

“I wanted to be out first the whole way, at the 50, the 100, the 150 and obviously touch first,” Conger said. “It was just a really good feeling. To win with Michael gone, that butterfly window is completely wide open. I wanted to stamp my ticket and make a statement.”

Complaints? Well, yes, he had some. His time was only seven hundredths quicker than he had swum two years earlier in San Antonio. But Conger insisted that he is “bigger and stronger” than he was then, and certainly his performance in the 200-yard fly at the NCAA championships (1:37.35) suggests there’s more in the tank for when he gets to Budapest.

“I expected a big drop, and I still expect a big drop at Worlds,” Conger said. “I have a lot more resting to do. I have a lot more fine-tuning. I wasn’t really out that fast, and I’m a big speed guy, so that’s definitely something that I can look forward to.”

Clark, on the other hand, was in no mood to look forward. He was still grasping in awe of what he had just accomplished.

Whereas Conger had been a talented and versatile high schooler with National Age Group records at the top of all recruiting boards, Pace Clark had not. Conger has plenty of international experience, including the Olympics. Clark, not so much. He didn’t make his international debut until this past December—during his senior year at Georgia—at Short Course Worlds in Windsor, Canada.

He arrived in Indianapolis with a lifetime best time of 1:56.24, and he lowered that to 1:56.06 in prelims. In the final, Clark would go on to crush that time—and but that’s not what mattered most.

In Clark’s own words, he was “blacking out” the last 50. But he was coming home in 29.47, the fastest split in the field, and going right past training partner and pre-race favorite Chase Kalisz. Clark finished in 1:54.54, a best time by a second and a half. He had touched second, and he was going to the World Championships.

“World University Games would have been a great experience, but I always wanted to go to Worlds,” Clark said. “It’s kind of been the chip on my shoulder. When I missed the Olympics last year, that was the goal coming in—just try to make Worlds, and that’s what Jack always trained us to do. My goal was to finish and get that spot.”

Clark knew he was due for a solid time drop, but that big an improvement he never saw coming.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“Being at 1:56 so many times—three times at Trials, one time this year—I really wanted to be 1:55,” Clark said. “Seeing a 1:54 is even more shocking. I couldn’t believe it. I actually told our fly coach, Jerry (Champer), that I was going to be 1:54.9, so to even be faster than that is exciting.”

Conger and Clark experienced very different reactions to making the Worlds team in the 200 fly, but for both, it was a breakthrough. The next step, contending internationally, might not be too far out of their reach.

The top two times from Nationals rank fourth and fifth in the world, respectively, and two of the three men who have been quicker, Masato Sakai and Tamas Kenderesi, joined Phelps on the Olympic podium last summer in Rio. Certainly, if Conger and Clark replicate those times in Budapest, they will be fast enough to make the 200 fly final.

And if it doesn’t go well, Budapest will at least be a learning experience for the duo to build off of, which is plenty important with Phelps (again) insisting he won’t be making a comeback.

Even Shields, the man who joined Phelps in the 200 fly in Rio but finished a surprising ninth in the event’s prelims at Nationals, sees the upside.

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Author: David Rieder

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David Rieder is a staff writer for Swimming World. He has contributed to the magazine and website since 2009, and he has covered the NCAA Championships, U.S. Nationals, Olympic Trials as well as the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and the 2017 World Championships in Budapest. He is a native of Charleston, S.C., and a 2016 graduate of Duke University.

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