For more than a decade, Michael Phelps was known for his numbing consistency. He won races in sickness and in health, despite bad starts, poor finishes, untied swimsuits and malfunctioning goggles. In his return to the sport, it did not take Phelps long to realise how much thinner his margin of error had become.
At the US long-course national championships on Wednesday, Phelps's first major national competition since 2012, he made his opening event the 100-metre freestyle, an event he seldom used to swim in major meets. During the preliminaries, Phelps, who said his freestyle stroke had recently felt "off," swam a pedestrian first 50 but came back strong to qualify third, in 48.77 seconds, behind Nathan Adrian, the reigning Olympic champion, and Anthony Ervin, the co-champion in the 50 freestyle at the 2000 Olympics.
Later that night, Phelps looked strong over the first 50 meters, touching the wall 41-hundredths of a second faster than in the morning. But he badly misjudged his turn and ended up having to rev up from a near standstill after barely grazing the wall. Eighth at the 50, he finished seventh, in 49.17 seconds, at the William Woollett Jr Aquatics Centre.
Adrian won in 48.31 seconds. Ryan Lochte, the eighth and last qualifier for the final, was second in 48.96, touching just ahead of Jimmy Feigen (48.98). Conor Dwyer, who trains with Phelps at North Baltimore Aquatic Club, was fourth. The top four finishers earned berths on the 4x100 freestyle relay at the Pan Pacific Championships in Australia.
“It just kind of stinks that I missed the first wall,” Phelps said, “but it’s a part of racing.”
No American has one of the top-10 times in the 100 freestyle in history, and Wednesday’s times did nothing to change that. Adrian acknowledged he expected to go faster.
“Fortunately, I just think I did a little less bad than everyone else,” he said, adding, “As a whole, that group of eight guys is much faster than what we showed in the pool tonight.”
The aquatics centre is an outdoor facility, and the night's lengthening shadows were a factor in Phelps' bad turn. "Maybe he should have listened to me when I said, 'Everybody go there and do some turns on the turn wall' because it's hard to see at night," Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, said. He added, though: "I think we both felt good because he actually swam well tonight. I thought he looked good going out."
Phelps’ next event in the meet is perhaps his best one, the 100-metre butterfly. He needs to finish first or second in the race on Friday to secure a spot on the team bound for Australia. Phelps, who has four of the 10 fastest times in the history of the event, said, “I’m just trying to get a spot on the team and go from there.” New York Times