Saturday July 5th, 2008

Youth was served at the Olympic swimming trials Friday night. And experience savored the meal.

If you weren't weighted down by the double-volume tomes containing your swim resume, if you weren't signing autographs for your competitors who took up your events because they saw you on television, if you didn't have a pass into the masters events tucked away in your warm-up suit as a fallback option, well, you just didn't belong.

It was a banner night for some of the sport's banner names, many of whom are aging like Napa's finest. Dara Torres, Amanda Beard, Aaron Peirsol and Natalie Coughlin either earned their first Olympic berths of the meet in Omaha or added additional races to their programs, and Gary Hall Jr. swam a step closer to Beijing against enormous odds. Add to that list three-time Olympian Michael Phelps, who broke his own world record in the 200 individual medley Friday night and you have six veterans with a total of 20 Olympic berths, 22 Olympic gold medals and 43 Olympic medals who highlighted the evening's wonderful throwback night of swimming that might as well have been conducted in nylon suits.

"A night for the elders," joked Torres, who won the 100-meter freestyle Friday, at 41 in 53.78 seconds, securing a spot in the history books. In Beijing, she will be the first woman to swim in her fifth Olympics. As Torres reached the finish wall, ahead of Coughlin, five-hundredths back, she squinted, looking her age for the first time all night. "I didn't see the scoreboard," she said. "My eyes feel 41. They're going to have to make those numbers a little bigger for people my age." How long has Torres been at this? When she won a relay gold medal at the L.A. Games in 1984, the majority of swimmers competing at these trials were not yet born. Yet as she walked onto the pooldeck to receive her winner's medal, Torres thought of her father who had passed away 18 months ago and held her infant daughter in her arms. "In some ways," she said, "I'm like all the other swimmers here, because I still feel the passion for what I do. In some ways I'm like none of them because I've lived their lives twice." Phelps referred to Torres after the race as the team mother. "I like to refer to it as a big sister," Torres corrected. "Maybe an aunt."

During three years away from the competitive spotlight, Beard spent much of her time making modeling and television appearances. She was also giving herself a chance to avoid the burnout that comes with overtraining. In Omaha, she fell well behind Rebecca Soni, who clocked 2:22.60 in the 200 breaststroke to make her first Olympic team. But Beard held off a strong closing Caitlin Leverenz to finish a strong second. "Not a lot of people expected me to make this team," said Beard, now a four-time Olympian at 26. "I knew I could make the team. I knew it was a long shot. I came here with not a lot of training under my belt. Fortunately, it worked fine. My experience really helped me out. The crowd was extremely loud and noisy. I thrive on that. I love the pressure and the stress. That could be a little hard for some of the girls."

The result ruined the summer plans of the swimmer who was first seen clutching her teddy bear on the victory stand at the 1996 Atlanta Games. "I was planning a little trip up the coast with boyfriend and dogs and RV and now I have to put that on the backburner," she said.

Though Beard was seeded seventh in her event coming into the trials, the result hardly surprised her fellow veterans. "[Coach] Bob [Bowman] and I were saying after warm up this morning that Amanda was going to find her way onto the team," Phelps said. Peirsol, who first trained with Beard at age ten, saw it coming, too. "I'm so impressed with Amanda," he said. "She's got the best head for the sport as anyone. She can get her hand on the wall. She can take three years off, but she knows what to do when she comes back. She's not someone you stress with."

Peirsol faced another challenge from Ryan Lochte, who carried him to a world-record tying 1:34.32 200-meter backstroke on Saturday and finished just .02 behind. The pair had a three-second lead on the field. With two Olympic berths at stake, the lead screamed for a coast, a glide, a controlled finish that would easily bring the two stars another Olympic berth. Then the race got the best of them. "I've got his arm flashing to the side of me," says Peirsol, the three-time Olympic champ. "At one point he's a little behind, then he's a little ahead. We were just playing with each other and that's what made the race. Without him, I'm in easy. Without me, he's in easy. But you're at the Olympic trials and you're here to race, so you kick it. No matter how many times you've been there, you might get tired, but you don't get tired of racing."

Hall will have his chance to complete the seniors roster Saturday night in the finals of the 50-meter freestyle, which he will enter as a solid No. 4 seed, hunting for one of two Olympic berths. Not even diabetes and a steady diet of insulin injections have slowed one of the sport's great characters and clutch performers. In March, Hall was in a New York hospital, making children with diabetes feel comfortable by injecting himself in front of them and telling them there was nothing they couldn't do because he was proof a diabetes patient could win the Olympic 50-meter freestyle at age 29. But now at 33? "It's okay," Hall jokes. "The deductible on my insurance re-sets every year." On Friday, Hall qualified fourth in 21.94 seconds. He has people seeded ahead of him in Saturday's final, Ben Wildman-Tobriner and Cullen Jones, who have no business not being on the team. But bet against Hall at your peril. "So many coaches say swim your own race," Hall said after his semifinal. "The 50 free is about swimming everyone in the pool. It's about understanding what to do and getting inspired by the moment instead of getting freaked out by it. Experience can only help you get to that point."

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.