As Michael Phelps walked onto the pool deck in Omaha, Nebraska, during the U.S. Olympic trials — this time as a fan rather than as a swimmer — a familiar feeling came over him.
The 23-time gold medalist had competed in the pool numerous times, propelling him toward the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics. But he wasn’t there to compete this time, and he needed to remind himself of that. He’s been retired for five years.
Still, old habits are hard to shake.
“I was walking on the pool deck, and I felt chills going up my body,” Phelps said Monday night (via USA Today). “I had to stop and take a lot of deep breaths. It was overwhelming.”
Phelps, now 35, is the most decorated Olympian of all time, securing 28 medals. He’s watching the Olympic trials with his wife, Nicole, and the oldest of his three sons, 5-year-old Boomer.
He doesn’t attend many meets anymore, but he has attended every Olympic trials competition since 1996. This is just the first time he’s not swimming in one — although he feels as if he could.
“This is all I know and all I’ve really understood,” Phelps said. “I almost feel like, for me, body-wise, I feel like I’m almost ready. I’m ready to go. Maybe put me in there, let me do a time trial or something. It’s something weird. It’s weird feeling that again.”
But Phelps isn’t pondering a comeback. He wanted to see the next generation of American swimming talent, and there has been plenty on show this week in Omaha.
Arlington swimmer Torri Huske, 18, broke her own American record as she won the 100-meter butterfly Monday night, securing her place at the Tokyo Games next month. Her time of 55.66 seconds beat the record she set Sunday night in the semifinals, and it’s the third-fastest time on record.
Lilly King finished half a second shy of her world record in the 100-meter breaststroke, but the reigning gold medalist posted the fastest time in the world this season — a 1:04.72 — during Monday’s semifinal. And Michael Andrew secured his place in Tokyo during the men’s 100-meter breaststroke final, although he finished with a slower time than the American record he produced Sunday. He touched out Bethesda’s Andrew Wilson by 0.01 seconds, who also likely is headed to Tokyo.
Katie Ledecky qualified for her third Olympics in the 400-meter freestyle, but she is set to face stiff competition from 20-year-old Ariarne Titmus, who swam her 400-meter free nearly five seconds faster than Ledecky — although slower than Ledecky’s world-record time — on Sunday at the Australian Olympic trials.
Elsewhere, former Olympic champion Ryan Lochte got off to an inauspicious start Monday. The 36-year-old failed to advance from the preliminary round of the 200-meter freestyle, his first event at the meet.
Those athletes have often looked at Phelps as the preeminent swimmer at the Olympic trials. But after a long — and successful — career, Phelps can now look at the next group of swimmers while appreciating all he accomplished in his own time.
“I can think all the way back to being a little kid and wanting the opportunity to just swim on one Olympic team and maybe win one medal,” Phelps said. “Twenty-eight Olympic medals? That’s weird. That’s still really weird to look at. It’s just strange. It hasn’t fully sunk in yet. It’s so awesome for me to take a trip back down that memory lane.”