Michael Phelps Starts Path To London Gold, First Olympic Triple

Analysis by Jeff Commings

PHOENIX, Arizona, June 20. IN less than a week's time, the water will be churning in Omaha, Nebraska. The stage will be set and the spectators seated, ready to see some record-making and record-breaking races. But the real story may actually be what races will and won't occur.

With Tuesday's release of the psych sheets for the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials, scheduled to begin Monday in Omaha, Neb., we have learned that Michael Phelps has entered in seven individual events at the meet.

Among those events is the 400-meter individual medley, an event that Phelps, 26, said he would not contest again after winning gold in the 2008 Olympics in world record time. That promise was broken in 2010, when Phelps raced in the prelims of the Pan Pacific championships. Phelps has swum the event a few more times since then, most notably at a stop on the FINA World Cup circuit and last March at the Indianapolis Grand Prix.

Psych sheets are not official lists of swimmers in each event. They only list the competitors who sign up for a particular event, to give athletes the opportunity to size up the competition. Only when the heat sheets are published at the start of each day's competition is the number of athletes in a particular event made official. Athletes usually have until the previous evening to make a decision about swimming in preliminary competition in a particular event the following day. If a swimmer does not want to swim in a particular event, he or she will “scratch” the event.

Therefore, Phelps — and his coach, Bob Bowman — can still scratch from the 400 IM at Trials this year.

If Phelps swims the 400 IM, and makes the Olympic team in that event (as well as the 100 fly, 200 fly and 200 IM), he could make history as the first man to win the same individual swimming event at three consecutive Olympics. Kosuke Kitajima of Japan also has the chance to make this distinction in the 100 and 200 breaststrokes. (Two women — Dawn Fraser and Krisztina Egerszegi — have accomplished this feat in Olympic swimming history.)

Kitajima's quest for history is what makes Phelps' will-he-or-won't-he decision regarding the 400 IM so significant. If Phelps does not swim the 400 IM in Omaha, he will miss out on the chance to be the first man ever to complete the Olympic triple. That opens the door for Kitajima to make history first if he wins gold in the 100 breast final on July 29. If Kitajima does not win gold, Phelps' first opportunity for the triple would come in the 200 butterfly on July 31.

Would Phelps be OK with giving Kitajima first crack at the Olympic Triple? By swimming the 400 IM a few times in the past year, Phelps showed that he's leaving the door open to contest the 400 IM at Trials and get the opportunity to be the first man welcomed into that exclusive “Olympic Triple Club.” Phelps rarely backs down from a challenge, and winning a third gold in the 400 IM would be one of his biggest challenges in London. Though he won the race handily in 2008, Ryan Lochte has become dominant in the event since then, winning the past two world championship titles in Phelps' absence.

Phelps has also signed up for the 100 and 200 freestyle, the 100 and 200 butterfly, the 200 individual medley and the 200 backstroke at the 2012 Trials. This is two events fewer than he entered in 2008, when he also signed up for the 400 freestyle and 100 backstroke.

In 2008, Phelps scratched from the 400 freestyle, 100 backstroke and 200 backstroke. He swam the 100 freestyle in prelims only, to secure a spot on the 4×100 freestyle relay in Beijing. He would go on to compete in — and win — his other five individual events in Omaha before achieving the ultimate distinction of eight golds in Beijing, the most any athlete has won in a single Games.

We can say with a fairly large degree of certainty that Phelps will swim the 200 free, 100 fly, 200 fly and 200 IM in Omaha. If he makes the Olympic team in these four events, he could have the opportunity to win seven medals in London, counting in likely participation in all three relays.

Phelps might scratch the 200 backstroke in Omaha, as the finals of that event fall about 20 minutes before the final of the 200 IM. Phelps had planned to swim these two events at the 2004 Olympics after placing second in the 200 back at the Trials and winning the 200 IM. But shortly after Trials, Phelps opted out of the 200 backstroke.

In order to get the chance to compete in all three relays at the Olympics, Phelps will likely have to compete in the 100 freestyle preliminaries and post a time that will rank him in the top six in the country. (Though the top two are selected for individual events at the Olympics, the top six finishers in the 100 and 200 freestyle at Trials make the team for relay duties.) Phelps has hinted that he would like to swim the 100 freestyle at the Olympics, so we could see him in the final of that event in Omaha, battling for one of the two roster spots in the individual event.

This guessing game is what makes swimming fans excited in these finals days before the biggest swim meet in the United States begins. Phelps has hinted that the Olympics will be his final competition, and the question on everyone's mind is: How packed will Phelps' schedule be on his final hurrah?