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Phelps: Alone Inside 1:54 - For Sixth Time

Jun 28, 2012  - Craig Lord

US Olympic Trials, Omaha, day 4 Finals:

Men's 200m butterfly

Michael Phelps signed up for his signature event with the third best swim of his career in textile, a 1:53.65 victory ahead of a tight thriller for the second Olympic berth. Davis Tarwater and Bobby Bollier fought valiantly but it was the man so often locked out by Phelps and Ryan Lochte who prospered: Tyler Clary, on 1:55.12.

Phelps trailed Tarwater at the first turn, 24.89 to 25.32. By the 100m mark, Tarwater still had the edge on the Olympic champion, 53.56 to 53.73. We then got a glimpse of the explosive power of the biggest fish of them all as Phelps rocketed off the wall into a momentum that would sweep him to victory and a third solo swim for his London 2012 Olympic swan song.

Tarwater did well to hang on, the edge with Phelps 1:23.33 to 1:23.68 by the last turn, Bollier on 1:24.45, Clary, still in the fourth place he had been in all the way, on 1:24.69 and ready to pounce. 

There was no-one faster than Bob Bowman's charge on the way to the wall but his 30.32 last lap was only just inside Clary's rush on to the Olympic team, a 30.43 return sweeping him past Bollier, on 1:55.79 by the close, and Tarwater, who felt the pace and finished on 1:56.83.

The splits compared:

  • 2012: 25.32; 53.73; 1:23.33; 1:53.65 Omaha 
  • 2007: 25.26; 53.62; 1:22.87; 1:52.08 Melbourne 
  • 2011: 25.02; 53.86; 1:23.42; 1:53.34 Shanghai
  • 2009: 24.76; 52.88; 1:21.93; 1:51.51 Rome

No other swimmer has ever cracked 1:54 in textile

Six of the tex best - Phelps's sub-1:54 swims:

  • 1:52.09 2007 world title
  • 1:53.34 2011 world title
  • 1:53.65 2012 Olympic trials
  • 1:53.71 2007 Grand Prix
  • 1:53.80 2006 Pan Pacs
  • 1:53.93 2003 world semis

His world record stands at 1:51.51, set in a LZR racer with 50% poly panels, in Rome 2009.

The time was not where Phelps wants it to be come London. "It's not a good enough time to win a gold medal, but I think I'm OK with it," he said. "Going into the last wall, I didn't want to have any close ones, so I tried to stay under as long as I could. Today was the best my stroke has felt throughout the whole meet."

Phelps greeted Clary as an Olympic freshman with a deckside pat on the back. "When I got out I said to him, `It's pretty cool to make your first one,' and he goes, `You have no idea how good that feels,"' Phelps said. "It was definitely cool to watch his excitement, and swimming with him for a couple of years of school, you see how much of a hard worker he is. It's cool to see everything pay off."

Clary's take: "It was amazing. I can't even put into words how the end of that race felt, not only the pain in the last 20 meters but just the complete and total turnaround. I'm on cloud nine right now."

The Olympic triple crown club beckons for Phelps after victories in 2004 and 2008. How would he feel if it happened, asked 200 'fly Olympic champ from 1992 Summer Sanders.

"Hasn't happened so I can't answer that question," he smiled. Did stats like those motivate him? "Its a goal of mine but we'll see what those goals are."

Was he enjoying it, asked Sanders. "How can you not enjoy it with a crowd like this," said Phelps acknowledging the 13,000-strong full house. "Its been incredible to swim in front of a packed house like that and we thank you guys ... it really does help us."

Phelps, who described the last 25m of the race as "really painful",  is not slaughter sharp at these trials, though even then defeat was not even remotely on the cards. Loss has played a significant role in the shaping of a supreme athlete and his trail-blazing life way out from over 200m butterfly.

Asked to define the meaning of defeat, Phelps told me: "I think it can be a number of different things. If I do a best time and get beaten, there's nothing else I can do at that point. I did what I was prepared for. I can look at defeat as a motivator, that is part of the biggest thing you can look at it as; after [Tom] Malchow [200m butterfly Olympic champion, 2000] defeated me at Pan Pacs [Pan Pacific Championships] in 2002, I didn't ever want to lose that race again. That's something that even today still sticks in my mind.

"So little things like that that will get you a little extra-motivated are important. You will always have that feeling after defeat - it's a much worse feeling than after a win. Defeat really sticks with you. I look at defeat as something that's always helping. It's taught me never to have that feeling again and If I'm not prepared when I have a defeat then I will make sure next time that I am prepared."

The road to London 2012 may well have been a fortuitous one in that sense, Phelps having been on the wrong side of opponents more often in the last cycle of his Olympic career than he ever was in the two that led to 14 gold medals and his status as the greatest Olympian of all-time.

His list of defeats that stung most includes three butterfly bruises and the Pythonesquely premature "Race of the Century" over 200m freestyle at Athens 2004.

  • "The 2002 200m 'fly at Pan Pacs. I broke the world record in 2001 at worlds (world championships) and at world trials and at Pan Pacs Malchow touched me out"
  • "In 2003 the 100m 'fly when Ian Crocker beat me at worlds"
  • "The 100 'fly at 2005 worlds - that was the biggest embarrassment of my swimming career. I've never been handed a 'hit' like that in my entire life. When I looked up I saw 50-point and punched the air, then I realised it wasn't for me. That was embarrassing."