Victory gives Phelps historic spot for Rio

Michael Phelps on his way to winning the 200m butterfly at the US trials in Omaha, Nebraska on Wednesday. The American said the closing stage of his winning time of 1:54.84 was an "awful" performance.
Michael Phelps on his way to winning the 200m butterfly at the US trials in Omaha, Nebraska on Wednesday. The American said the closing stage of his winning time of 1:54.84 was an "awful" performance.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Comeback king is the first US male swimmer to qualify for squad for a fifth Olympic Games

OMAHA (Nebraska) • Michael Phelps is headed to a fifth Olympics - the first American male swimmer to do so - in the event that launched his epic Games career in 2000 - the 200m butterfly.

Determined to exit swimming on his own terms, the American great cleared a major hurdle on the road to Rio on Wednesday, qualifying with a victory in the event that has paved the way to more Games glory.

Inspired, motivated and sober, he heads to Rio thanks to his win at the US Olympic trials with the goal of adding to his staggering record total of 22 medals, including 18 golds, and penning a happy ending to a brilliant career that he feels he denied himself at the 2012 Olympics.

"Coming back and being able to have the opportunity to finish how I want," said Phelps, of his motivation. "I'm doing this because I wanted to.

"I think things are probably going to hit me a lot more emotionally now than what they would have in the past, because I'm enjoying the moment and I'm embracing the moment."

For Phelps, this Olympic journey is more important than the destination, a trip into retirement that he is determined to share with his fiancee Nicole and infant son Boomer, who were among the sell-out crowd of 14,000 at the CenturyLink Centre.

In London, which he had said to be his last Games, Phelps won four golds and overall six medals but walked away with the regret that he simply went through the motions.

He subsequently talked of a golf career but eventually found himself testing the waters of a swimming comeback. That was interrupted by a second drink-driving arrest in 2014 and a stint in rehab that laid the foundation for his transformation from a party boy to a family man.

After accepting his medal for winning the 200m fly, Phelps searched the darkened arena for his partner and child, joining them poolside where he hugged Nicole and planted a kiss on his son's forehead.

"I wanted to go over, and I've always given my family my flowers and stuffed animal, I guess that's his (Boomer's) first stuffed animal from a race," said Phelps, who will have Nicole and Boomer join him in Rio despite the Zika threat.

"I just wanted to share that with them. I don't see him every day. I try to, but if I do it's for a very short moment, so any time I have with him is always very special," the swimmer said.

While Phelps, who celebrated his 31st birthday yesterday, has turned his life around away from the pool, in the water he remains as demanding and critical as ever.

Aside from the result, very little in his 200m swim on Wednesday evening pleased him, the winning time of 1:54.84 well off his world mark of 1:51.51 - set at the tail end of the bodysuit era in 2009.

"Awful," declared Phelps when asked to assess the last part of his swim when he faded but was still able to hold off the determined Tom Shields, who took second in 1:55.81. "The piano felt pretty hard.

"I think with everything that has happened and being able to come back, that was probably harder than any swim I have had in my life.

"I haven't felt great in the water but like I said I'm checking a box off, being able to get on the team was the most important thing."

Regaining the Olympic title he won in 2004 and 2008 and surrendered to Chad le Clos four years ago, in an event he long considered his baby, will provide strong motivator for Phelps in Rio.

However, the South African will not be the only man standing in his way in the 200m fly, with Hungary's Laszlo Cseh, Japan's Daiya Seto and Masato Sakai topping the world rankings.

"We have a little over 30 days to prepare," said Phelps, who is also chasing Olympic berths in the 100m fly and 200m individual medley. "Just looking forward to hopefully swimming faster than what I swam here."

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 01, 2016, with the headline 'Victory gives Phelps historic spot for Rio'. Print Edition | Subscribe