Saturday night Michael Phelps said a fond goodbye to American fans. Katie Ledecky and Nathan Adrian were the freestyle qualifiers that will be joining Phelps in Rio.
Those swimmers cemented their status as the stars of the Olympic trials – Phelps (100-meter butterfly), DiRado (200 backstroke) and Ledecky (800 freestyle) winning their third races of the meet, and Adrian (50 free) winning his second.
Will they own the world next month at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro? That’s a tougher question.
Beyond emotional reactions that make this such a powerful question, close races, surprise finishes and tight competition, here is a reality check: this has not been a terribly quick qualifying meet. The difficult part remains to come.
With 24 of 26 trial races, zero world records have been set and just one American record broke (Josh Prenot in the 200 breaststroke). In a meet where everyone not named Katie Ledecky is theoretically rested and primed to perform at the maximum degree, only 18 percent of the swimmers have beaten their entrance times – 14 percent of the females and 20 percent of the males.
It should be noted that those amounts aren’t much different from the 2012 trials. Records were rare then, too, and only 17 percent of swimmers posted record times. That might just be the opportunity cost of turning this swim meet into a spectacle that plays out in a basketball arena in front of 14,000-plus enthusiasts.
“I think ” Phelps said about the slower qualifying times. “I think there are lots of individuals that, the lights come on and it’s a different experience.”
The lights in Rio are even more glowing. And the competition keeps getting quicker.
American girls are Lilly King in the 100 breaststroke: Ledecky in the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles.
Figuring all six American relays would win medals – not a sure thing, but a reasonable figure – that raises the presumptive total to 29 medals.
In London in 2012, which was a dominated by America, the medal total was 31. So this year could be comparable.
The one male Olympian who could take the biggest step forward is still Phelps. He hasn’t approached his best times from last summer, when he was No. 1 in the world in the 100 fly, 200 fly and 200 IM. Right now he is second, sixth and second globally in those races.
“I know if I’d like to be anywhere on the [medals] podium, some of those times are going to have to be a lot faster,” he said.
Does he have a strategy for rediscovering his surprise 2015 speed?
“Bob [Bowman] does,” Phelps said, referring to his trainer of the previous 20 years. “I hope he does. If not I’m going to have to fire him.”
That was a joke, obviously. But Phelps wasn’t joking once I asked him about his potential relay participation when he dropped a fascinating tidbit Saturday night.
“It’s up for discussion,” he said. “I might time trial a 100 free tomorrow morning. … I understand there’s interest from other guys doing the 100 so we could fire up a total heat tomorrow, which would be enjoyable. See how I feel tonight and I sleep and tomorrow morning. We’ll see. Obviously I ‘d love the opportunity to be on a relay. … It would probably be at my trainer’s discretion whether or not I’m on the 800.”
As for the 800 being left to the trainer’s discretion – Bowman is the U.S. guys trainer, which definitely could enhance Phelps’ opportunities of being a discretionary inclusion.
Since time trials were invented, they’ve been low-wattage matters between contest sessions that are attended by family members only. Phelps could create the first genuine time-trial race before the olympics in swimming history.
On the women’s side, Ledecky doesn’t even have to swim to her greatest times to be a multi-gold medal favorite in Rio. But expect her to perform at a degree that is higher there and maybe take down her own world records in the 400 and 800 freestyles.
Ledecky burst out instantly in the 800 tonight, increasing expectations of a world record, but fell off the pace by the halfway mark. She said she could never get her kick into high gear, a possible victim of her ambitious program over the past week.
In addition to claiming a position on the 800 free relay race and winning the 200, 400 and 800, Ledecky tried to add the 100 free and 400 free relay to her plate to go for six medals in Rio. But she faltered in the 100 free final, finishing seventh and desiring a coach’s increase for relay race inclusion.
Just having the individual 100 out of her manner should raise her likelihood of a memorable Olympics. Less could be more.
“You take out three rounds of the 100 and my program sets up a little more easy in Rio,” Ledecky said. “So that’s great.”
It’s Katie Ledecky, if there is one swimmer America should be able to count on in Rio. Everyone else must step up their game from Omaha in order for the U.S. to be standing on the Olympic swimming podium as usual.