Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky added to their victory totals on Day 7 of the Olympic Swimming Trials in Omaha. Here are some of the day’s highlights:
If there is a better pressure performer in the pool, on the court, on the field, at the rink, at the arena...heck, on the planet, than Michael Phelps, then tell him or her to stand up and be counted. Otherwise, just sit back and watch Phelps dominate. Saturday night, Phelps roared from behind to win the 100-meter butterfly in 51.00 seconds. Tom Shields earned an Olympic place by finishing second in 51.20 and Seth Stubblefield was the odd man out in third in 51.24.
Never mind that Phelps only qualified with the sixth-fastest time in the semifinals or that during the final, he turned in fourth place at the 50-meter wall. This is Phelps, a five-time Olympian who has won races by margins large and small. No matter the challenge, he is ready to meet it. “I was walking over with [his coach] Bob [Bowman] today,” Phelps recalled, “and I was saying there is no way I am going to lose my last meet on American soil.” In the middle of his pronouncement, he paused before the word "way" and gritted his teeth through the self-censorship of an omitted choice word or two. “I knew you were going to win after you said that,” Bowman told him after the race. Phelps completed his back 50 in 26.94 seconds, a glimpse of the old Phelps who would rally past foes in the closing strokes of races. “I was determined and fired up today and this is the best that I’ve felt so far at this meet,” he said. Yes, Phelps has asserted all week that his times have disappointed him, but there were hints on Saturday that he will change that in Rio.
Record chase falls short
Give Katie Ledecky credit for chasing a record that has a nearly impossibly high standard to match. After all, it’s hers. Ledecky won the 800 free by nearly 10 seconds on Saturday, touching the wall in 8:10.32. How fast is that? Consider that Leah Smith, a legitimate threat to win a medal in Rio, took second in 8:20.18. By the time Smith touched, the arena’s main camera had panned to Ledecky and back twice before it caught the runner-up reaching the wall.
Ledecky went for it immediately. Her reaction time off the blocks, .66 seconds, already put her a hand up on the field, and by the time she turned at the first of 15 intermediate walls, she was up by .9 seconds. For 600 meters she was ahead of the world record 8:06.68 she set in Austin in January. It was at roughly that point when she knew the record was slipping away. “I would have liked to have been faster, but I could kind of tell during that race that it wasn’t going to be faster than yesterday,” she said. “I would have liked to have brought my legs in a little bit more throughout the race, but they weren’t there tonight and my arms got a little tired.”
My, Oh, Maya
Maya DiRado won her third race in Omaha on Saturday, taking the 200 back by nearly a second and adding to the victories she already had in the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys earlier in the week. DiRado inched ahead of early leader Amy Bilquist in the second 50 and was never challenged for the rest of the race. Missy Franklin took second in 2:07.89. “I’ve really been working on that third 50,” DiRado said. “That’s the point where I needed to be in control.” At 23, DiRado hardly seems like the Olympic rookie she will be in Rio. The Stanford grad is married with an engineering degree. She has also had success on the international stage since the London Games, winning a silver medal at the World Championships in the 400 IM last year. Still DiRado confessed to a swarm of pre-meet jitters that only subsided after she won the 400 IM by three seconds on the first night of the Trials. “This meet got so much better after that,” she said. “You can try to control your nerves all you want, but there is no staying calm when you are trying to make the Olympic team. Having that out of the way has made this so much better.”
It’s gotta be the suits
Barring a surprise in either of the two event finals to be contested on Sunday—the women’s 50-meter freestyle and the men’s 1,500 free—the meet will close without a world record from the trials. Ledecky gave it a go in the 800 on Saturday, but for the second straight time, a U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials was held without a new best time being set. Sure, some pools are faster than others, but don’t blame this on the facility at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, where the competition also took place in 2012. The Trials were in the same building in 2008, when U.S. swimmers set seven world records, including two each by Phelps and backstroke king Aaron Peirsol.
So what’s the difference? That would be the change in swimsuit regulations made by FINA, the sport’s international governing body, that were voted upon in early 2009 and implemented after the World Championships that year, when a ridiculous 43 world marks fell at the Worlds in Rome. The full-body polyurethane blends that somehow seemed to propel swimmers through the water were banned, and a laundry list of specifications, from material to length, made what was previously legal into a violation. That has left even the elite swimmers lamenting their inability to better their previous standards. “It was a different era,” said Phelps, who set his last PR in 2009 and was an advocate then for suit restrictions as records began to fall en masse. “They made some good changes, though. It was getting out of hand.”
Like Phelps, Ryan Lochte set a pair of those records in Rome. Unlike Phelps, he has better times in five of his races since then, breaking Phelps’s world record in the 200 IM at the World Championships in 2011. “You’re still going to see times drop,” he said. “Swimmers are faster and better. It’s just that you had a kind of re-set when they changed the suits. But the quality of swimming is still getting better.” Now the times and records need to follow suit.