IRVINE, Calif. -- In the first national final of his second career in swimming, Michael Phelps faded to seventh place in the 100-meter freestyle Wednesday night at the national championships. Phelps returned to swimming after his post-London retirement earlier this spring, but he still hasn't had a breakthrough race or provided that wow moment to convince the swimming world he's back at full strength and will be a threat to make waves at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
Olympic champ Nathan Adrian won the race on Wednesday in 48.31 seconds, .07 slower than his time in prelims earlier in the day. Phelps took seventh in 49.17, well back of the 48.77 he swam earlier in the morning. Ryan Lochte took second, in 48.96, swimming from the outside in lane eight and catching the field, except for Adrian, in the final 50 meters.
Phelps stayed underwater for nearly a full stroke longer than the other swimmers. He was third at the 50-meter turn, a tenth behind Adrian, when he badly mistimed his touch at the first wall. The mistake forced him to play catch-up over the back half of his race, which is usually the stronger half, given his background as a swimmer in longer events. “I barely touched the 50 wall,” Phelps lamented after the race. “I thought I had set myself up for a good one. When I took a few more strokes and I was barely past the flags, I knew there was very little chance I was going to chase anybody down.”
Since his comeback, Phelps and his coach Bob Bowman have said they don’t have a good grasp as to where Phelps is in his comeback. A meet such as this is supposed to be an early measuring stick, but at least the first measure came up well short of expectations. He has always built on the momentum of his performances during the Olympic cycles, so the extra year may serve him well if he is going to be a factor in Rio.
The 100-meter freestyle event on Wednesday featured seven Olympians, including five individual Olympic medalists: Phelps, Adrian, Lochte, Anthony Ervin and Matt Grevers, a gold medalist in the 100 back and on the freestyle relay team in London. With Conor Dwyer and Jimmy Feigen in the race, too, seven of the swimmers in the pool had won a medal at either a world championship or an Olympics. Still, Phelps wasn’t alone in putting up an ordinary swim.
“It was just okay,” said Adrian after the race. “It felt really good in the first 50. I don’t think any of us expected the race to be this slow, especially when you looked at who was in the pool.”
This is the one year out of four in the Olympic cycle that doesn’t actually feature an Olympic Games or outdoor world championship. Different regions of the world have their own major competitions, including the European Championship and the Pan-Pacific Championships, which take place in Gold Coast, Australia later this month and feature top swimmers from the U.S., Japan, Canada, Brazil, New Zealand and Australia. As in the past, this meet serves as a direct qualifier to Pan Pacs, but to ensure top participation from most of its swimmers this season, USA Swimming also instituted a rule that swimmers wanting to compete at worlds in Kazan, Russia in 2015 had to take part at Nationals this summer. While not directed at any one swimmer, the rule was one of the reasons that Phelps came back this season instead of next and why Lochte was swimming despite a knee injury he suffered last fall in Gainesville, Fla. while trying to assist an enthusiastic fan who fell over.
Some other notes from the evening:
**Missy Franklin survived her first test of the meet, winning the 100-meter freestyle in 53.43 seconds, rallying past Texan Simone Manuel to do so and finishing .07 seconds off her personal best. This is not one of the stronger events for Franklin, who has 16 world and Olympic medals, but none in this event. A strong 50-meter swimmer, Manuel bolted to a lead of half a body length and finished second in 53.66. “I knew Simone was right next to me and she always goes out so fast,” Franklin said. “I just had to get my hand on the wall.”
**World record holder Katie Ledecky won her third straight national title in the 800 free, finishing in 8:18.47, six seconds ahead of the field. The result was no surprise. The Olympic champ, Ledecky had the top entry time by more than 12 seconds and the highest seed time by 15 seconds.
**It was odd watching a 200-meter butterfly final without Phelps in the field. Phelps set his first world record in this event in March, 2001 (1:54.92), then went on to break the next seven of them, lowering the mark to its existing standard 1:51.51 at the worlds in Rome in 2009. But with Phelps limiting his butterfly pursuits to the 100 this year, Cal’s Tom Shields surprised the pack, setting a PR by nearly two seconds and holding off Tyler Clary to win the race in 1:55.09. Clary placed second in 1:56.00. He had been fifth in the event at the London Games. Shields, 23, was gassed at the end of the race, but survived to post the third-fastest time in the world this year. “I wanted to use my walls and make some great turns,” said Shields, a strong short-course swimmer who turns exceptionally well. “I thought I could surprise some people if I did what I do well.” Shields is faster in the front parts of his races, so even though Phelps may be the reigning two-time Olympic champ in the event, he may have his hands full in the 100 fly final on Friday.