OMAHA, NEB.—— Michael Phelps added a third event to his London lineup Thursday night, powering ahead in the final leg to win the 200-meter butterfly race at the Olympic swimming trials — and also, in a sense, to touch home.
"This is my fourth Olympic Games in this event. It's special to me, it's special to my family," the 26-year-old Baltimore swimmer said after finishing in 1 minute, 53.65 seconds. "It's special to me, it's special to my family, it's special to my mom. Our family's always been butterfliers, so this event has been fairly special to us."
Phelps, who followed his older sisters, Hilary and Whitney, to the Meadowbrook pool in Mount Washington to launch his singular swimming career, seemed relieved to finally win a race by more than hundredths of a second. The second-place finisher, Tyler Clary, making his first Olympic team, came in at 1:55.12.
It was a good night for Meadowbrook's North Baltimore Aquatic Club, with Phelps' training friend Allison Schmitt qualifying for a second event, the 200 freestyle. She led from start to finish and beat her own American record with a time of 1:54.40.
Phelps said he was glad not to have a nail-biter finish as his previous races this week have been, against his rival and, according to his coach, neighboring-lane distraction, Ryan Lochte. Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, said the two, whose rivalry is expected to continue playing out at the rest of the trials and then in London next month, are so focused on chasing each other that they forget they have to swim fast, and against the entire pool.
Without Lochte in the 200-fly, Clary posed Phelps' greatest threat. Clary had been disappointed on Monday, when, as is often the case, Phelps and Lochte finished ahead of him in the 400 individual medley. Thursday presented redemption of a sort, and Phelps tipped his hat to him.
"He was ready and he wanted to step up," Phelps said of Clary. "He obviously finished the race really strong.
"It's cool to see somebody be excited after a race," he said. "I said to him when I got out, it's pretty cool to make your first one. He goes, you have no idea how good this feels."
For Phelps, the 200 fly is the one he can rely on even when other races are posing problems. It was the first race he qualified for in trials, making the 2000 team as a skinny 15-year-old and just past his freshman year at Towson High School. Less than a year later, he would set his first world record in the event. His mother, Debbie, watching from the stands, even has artwork in her home featuring butterflies in a nod to her swimming offspring.
Four trials and many more world records later, it is the kind of race where it's easy to pick him out, even from afar in a froth-churned pool. Not only is he the one who is usually ahead of the pack come that final leg, he seems to be swimming above rather than through the water.
Lochte swam his own race Thursday evening, a semifinal heat for the 100 freestyle in which he placed fifth and qualified for the finals.
NBAC's Schmitt, with Bowman applauding on the side, took her second trip to the winner's podium, an LED-lit platform that rises dramatically from below sea, or at least pool, level. She has dominated her events this week, winning the 400 free on Tuesday.
It was a tough field, but it seemed to pose no problems for Schmitt, who was joined at the medal ceremony by the three other women who qualified in her wake: Missy Franklin, Dana Vollmer and Lauren Purdue. Franklin and Vollmer also previously qualified for London in other events.
Phelps frequently points to Schmitt, who redshirted at Georgia to train at NBAC, as having helped lightened up his usually intense training. The seemingly unflappable 22-year-old professes never to get nervous before swims, and is known for breaking out in laughter even moments before the start when something amuses her — and a lot amuses her.
Bowman said Phelps and Schmitt have helped each other.
"I think he's taught her a lot. ... He's taught her how to manage her energy," Bowman said. "Because of her personality, she loves to be sociable, she likes to interact with people. And I think that drains her to a point. in some of the big meets before she burned up her energy before she could use it in the big race."
And Schmitt, for her part, has brightened the mood for the famously tough workouts that Bowman comes up with, and in the past have met with resistance from Phelps.
"She's made practice fun, which is hard to do a lot of times," he said. "That's really helped lighten the mood for him and make him want to come to practice more."