Michael Phelps ready for the challenge in Rio

Picture by 2016 Getty Images

While celebrating his 31st birthday, Michael Phelps brilliantly qualified in three individual distances, plus possibly three relays, for the US Olympic swimming team at the Trials in Omaha. He is on course to further increase in Rio his record of 18 titles and 22 podium finishes – which have already made him the greatest Olympian of all time.

He came (back), he saw, he conquered. Michael Phelps, who turned 31 on Thursday 30 June 2016, simultaneously brilliantly qualified over three individual distances for the US swimming team in Omaha (Nebraska). He won three races: the 200m butterfly to start, in 1:54.84 ahead of Tom Shields (1:55.81); the 200m medley to continue, following a clash of the Titans against Ryan Lochte, whom he beat by 31/100s in the final; and the 100m butterfly to finish, once again getting the better of Tom Shields, beaten by 20/100s, after having swum in lane seven to record the sixth best time in the semi-finals. His victory in 51.00s is the second best performance of the year in the world over this distance.

Michael Phelps

A series of records in the trials

“A terrible finish!” he nonetheless commented at the end of the 100m butterfly. “It was a little long, but, you know, I said to Bob [Bowman, his coach] he asked me what the game plan was tonight [2 July]; and I said, ‘I don't want to lose my last race on American soil,’ so that was kind of in my head. I have a lot of emotion here with [son] Boomer and with family here, and being my last meet on American soil, so there is a lot going on this week, but I'm happy that, you know, we did everything that we wanted to do. I made three events and possibly the relays, and we'll see what happens.”

While recognising that his times were “OK, but I will need a lot more to win gold in Rio”, the Olympian with the most titles of all time, who will therefore go for the stratospheric achievement in Brazil of winning his fourth consecutive Olympic 100m butterfly and 200m medley titles, set several records in Nebraska: he is the first US swimmer to qualify for five Olympic Games, having begun his career aged 15 in 2000 in Sydney. At 31, he is the oldest swimmer from his country to win at the trials, and the first to rack up four victories afterwards, in the 200m butterfly and 200m medley. He qualified on 2 July for his 27th Olympic event, more than any other swimmer. He has racked up 16 victories in the US selection races – another record.

I do understand that I have to swim faster to have a chance to win the gold medal. Michael Phelps - Michael Phelps

“I know I have a lot to work on before Rio, but it’s clear I’m stronger now than in 2012, physically and mentally”, said the greatest swimmer in history, who had retired from sport for the first time after winning his 18th gold medal and stepping up to his 22nd podium, at the finish line of the 4x100m medley, on 4 August 2012 in London.

How far will the kid from Baltimore (Maryland) take his podium record in the Olympic Park pool in Barra? In addition to the three distances for which he will defend two Olympic titles (100m butterfly and 200m medley) and will try to do better in a third (silver medal in 2012 behind South Africa’s Chad Le Clos in the 200m butterfly), he can compete in the 4x100m medley, and the 4x100m and 4x200m freestyle – six events. “I do understand that I do have to swim faster to have a chance to win the gold medal. I know that. There were just a bunch of small things I know I can improve on”, he said. And then… “I see lots of new faces on the US team. I don’t know half of them.”

It is clear that, when Michael Phelps competed at his first Games 16 years ago, some of this team mates were still going to kindergarten, or even crèche. Growing up, no doubt they were all inspired by his tremendous achievements: eight medals, including six gold, in Athens in 2004; eight historic titles combined with seven world records in Beijing in 2008; and six medals again in London in 2012, including four golds. To become the Olympian with the most medals and titles, the “Baltimore Bullet” explained that he had swum “every holiday, every Christmas, every birthday”, without taking a day off, “to be as prepared as I could, and I tried to see what I could really do and what my potential was. I just really did kind of whatever it took.” He decided after so many years at the top (he also racked up a record 26 titles in the FINA World Championships) to retire from the pool after the London Games.

First part of the challenge won

But in explaining: “I only saw myself as a swimmer. That’s it. Nothing else. I had no self-worth, no self-love; I was just like, ‘Yeah, I’m just a swimmer’”, Bob Bowman’s pupil, still the record-holder in the 100m butterfly (49.82), 200m butterfly (1:51.51), 400m medley (4:03.84), 4x100m relay (3:08.24) and 4x200m relay (6:58.55), decided to take up training again in April  2014, with the aim of defending his titles in Rio.

His efforts took him to Omaha, where he succeeded with the first part of his challenge. “I love what I do, how I live, and that’s why it has worked so well for me for two years”, he said. The Games of the XXXI Olympiad will be his last. Faster to win, higher and stronger to improve his total medal record, Michael Phelps still has some surprises in store for us!


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