IRVINE, Calif. -- Michael Phelps was on the wrong side of a fingertip finish on Friday night in the type of dramatic crescendo to a race that has symbolized his career. At his best -- during the 100-meter butterfly at the Olympics in 2004 and 2008 -- he would win signature races by a nail clipping or two. When the world caught up, he sometimes found himself on the wrong side of a photo finish, as he did in the 200-meter butterfly at the London Games.
In the 100-meter butterfly final at the national championships on Friday, Tom Shields edged Phelps by a hundredth of a second (51.29 to 51.30) to win his first national title. The result gave Phelps a berth on both the U.S. team for the Pan-Pacific Games in Gold Coast, Australia later this month and in the world championships in Kazan, Russia next year. But it also left him with more questions than answers after some tactical errors cost him the race.
“I was a little long going into that wall,” said Phelps, an 11-time national champ in the event. "I need to feel more comfortable with my stroke.”
Phelps had a bad turn at the 50-meter wall, and then caught himself in between stroking and gliding at the end of the race, when Shields glided past him. Ryan Lochte placed fifth in the race in 52.21.
“It’s better to be on the losing side at a meet like this,” Phelps said. “I’d rather lose here at the national championships and win an Olympic or world medal.”
For Shields, 23, a former collegiate standout at Cal and a standout in short-course events, the race marked a personal best and a career breakthrough not long after he was doubting his future, because of a prolonged illness.
“I was pretty lost, thinking about giving up the sport,” said Shields, who won the 200 fly here on Wednesday. After seeing the result on the scoreboard, he thrust his right arm into the air in celebration. “I feel bad. I don’t like to celebrate like that,” he said. “It was an emotional win for me … I was watching Michael in my garage in 2008.”
The day was not a complete loss for Phelps. His morning qualifying swim of 51.17 was the fastest in the world this year and four-hundredths faster than he swam to win the Olympic title in London. Only South African Chad le Clos, the man who upset Phelps in the 200 butterfly at the London Olympics, has swum faster since the Games. Though South Africa will send a team to Gold Coast, Le Clos has indicated he will not be on the squad. He won seven medals at this summer’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and has said openly that he wants to challenge’s Phelps’s world records in both the 100 and 200 butterfly races (49.82 and 1:51.51). That would set up Phelps and Shields as the favorites in the race at Pan-Pacs.
Since his April comeback, Phelps has had trouble putting together two good swims on the same day. His ability to turn in consecutive gems had been a hallmark of his career when he was at his peak.
“This morning’s swim was beautiful, relaxed,” said Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman. “Now he needs to go home and put in some more practices.”
Bowman saw the flaws in Phelps’ evening swim as a sign that his ace is not close to good form.
“Not yet. That was pretty terrible,” Bowman said. “He used 16 strokes, and instead of taking another one, he glided in at the wall. Armed it all the way down . . . He’s doing what he can and you can see from the morning that there’s been some good progress in some areas, but it’s not there yet.”
Still there is an unquestionable buzz about this particular meet, which is usually a poor draw in the one year out of four when there are neither Olympics, or world championships, taking place. Call it the Phelps factor. Sessions are sold out for the weekend, NBC has three days of coverage planned and reporters are here from Europe because of Phelps. Nathan Adrian is one of those swimmers who sees the good and bad side to Phelps’ return.
“It’s great, but it’s a little bit distracting,” he says.
As the reigning Olympic champion in the 100-meter freestyle, Adrian won the event here against a loaded field that included Phelps and Ryan Lochte on Wednesday. Adrian said after his race that nearly every interview he has conducted since Phelps’ return to the pool has included a question or two about the legend from Baltimore. The return hasn't been completely smooth for Phelps. In addition to his seventh-place showing here, he also lost a 100-free race last month in Georgia to Yannick Agnel -- the Frenchman who has moved to Baltimore to train with Bowman alongside Phelps.
“I don’t know why he was that nervous before the race, but he tightened up,” Bowman explained. “It wasn’t like Michael.”
He dropped one of his signature races, the 200 butterfly, from his program here, even though he has set the last eight world records in the event. On Wednesday, he finished seventh in the final of the 100-meter freestyle after flubbing another turn and costing himself valuable time and propulsion coming off the wall.
Why come back at all?
“Because he’s smiling now,” Bowman says. … “He wasn’t happy at all going into London. I don’t think he’s doing it, because he’s bored or there is nothing else to do. I think he’s doing it, because there is some unfinished business he thinks he can accomplish in the pool.”
Based on his results in Irvine, there is much to do before business starts booming again.