OMAHA, US, June 30, (AFP): Michael Phelps is headed to Rio, the 18-time Olympic gold medalist securing a milestone fifth games appearance on Wednesday at the US swimming trials.
Phelps, owner of 22 Olympic medals in all, became the first US man to qualify to swim in five Games with a hard-fought victory in the 200m butterfly.
The time of 1min 54.84sec was nothing to shout about, but when he saw the scoreboard Phelps raised his right hand, all five fingers extended.
“Just being able to finish how I want to is so important to me,” said Phelps, who has voiced regrets with his poor preparation for the London Games four years ago.
“Getting on this team was what I wanted to do.”
In a trials that has produced a bevy of first-time Olympians, Phelps wasn’t the only famous name to accomplish that mission.
Missy Franklin’s gritty runner-up finish to Katie Ledecky in the 200m freestyle means the quadruple gold medalist of London will race in at least one individual event in Rio.
A day earlier, Franklin was a disappointed seventh in the 100m backstroke — one of her gold medal events of 2012.
While Ledecky cruised to victory in 1:54.88, adding the 200m to her Rio slate after a victory in the 400m free.
Franklin rallied in the second hundred meters to seize second in 1:56.18, edging Leah Smith (1:56.63).
“I told her after the race she’s one tough cookie, and she got the job done tonight,” Ledecky said. “There’s more to come from her.”
Franklin said she took herself in hand after the backstroke, setting aside the pressure that came with trying to repeat or improve upon her London performance.
“I realized that my job here it’s not to make the Olympic team, it’s not to defend anything. It’s to swim well,” she said.
Allison Schmitt, the 2012 gold medalist, was fourth, good enough to earn a trip to Rio as part of the relay pool.
Schmitt’s achievement in reaching Rio, in the wake of a debilitating battle with depression that followed her London triumph, brought coach Bob Bowman to tears.
And Bowman’s emotions were still spilling over as he watched his most famous swimmer, Phelps, named to a fifth Olympic team.
Of all such ceremonies he’s seen, Bowman said, “this was the first time I cried.”
The 200m fly was the event in which a teenaged Phelps qualified for the 2000 Olympics. His world mark of 1:51.51 — set at the tail end of the bodysuit era in 2009 — still stands.
But Phelps has work to do if he is to regain the 200m fly Olympic crown he surrendered to Chad le Clos in London.
He led at every turn, but Tom Shields stuck to him and was on his shoulder coming off the turn for home, Phelps visibly fading in the final 20 meters.
“Awful,” he said of his last lap, which was still enough to hold off Shields, who finished in 1:55.81.
Phelps was optimistic he could improve in the month remaining before Rio, where his cheering section will include fiancee Nicole Johnson and their two-month-old son, Boomer.
The baby was in the stands for Phelps’s race, and received a kiss and medal-ceremony bouquet from his proud papa.
“I’ve always given my family my flowers and stuffed animals,” Phelps said. “That’s his first … I just wanted to share that with them.”