OMAHA, NEB. — Michael Phelps
This week at Olympic Trials, however, the greatest swimmer of his era has been noticeably preoccupied with time of a different sort.
Phelps, who turned 31 on Thursday, is feeling his age.
Oh, he's still plenty fast, as he demonstrated by making a fifth Olympics with his victory in the 200-meter butterfly and by cruising through qualifying races for the 200-meter individual medley Thursday. He'll be the No. 2 seed in Friday evening's IM final, a renewal of his long rivalry with Ryan Lochte.
But this Phelps knows the vast majority of his races are behind him, knows that he's witnessing the coming of a new swimming era in which he'll be a godfather rather than a participant.
You hear it as he reflects on the gawky, big-eared prodigy who showed up in the summer of 2000 for his first trials in Indianapolis. You hear it when he grumbles about the aches and pains he now feels the morning after a race. You hear it in his proud appraisals of the youth movement that has swept the 2016 trials, with some of the whippersnappers hailing from his own North Baltimore Aquatic Club.
Asked if he can still put himself in the shoes of 15-year-old Michael, making his trials debut, Phelps said, "I remember him. I definitely remember him."
"At the press conference like this, the question was, 'Do you have a girlfriend?'" recalled his longtime coach, Bob Bowman.
Phelps laughed, remembering that he told reporters he did in fact have a girlfriend. That prompted the inevitable follow-up: Had he kissed her?
"And I was like, 'No comment!'" he said.
"We have progressed in subject matter over the last 16 years," Bowman deadpanned.
"I don't know if he would recognize who I am today," Phelps said of his 15-year-old self. "But I definitely recognize him, and I recognize the journey from, you know, from the start of it when Bob and I first started back when I was 11 years old."
He's felt the weight of it this week, not just when racing but when kissing his own 8-week-old son, Boomer, or cheering his de facto younger siblings, Chase Kalisz and Allison Schmitt, to Olympic berths in Rio de Janeiro.
He seems perfectly comfortable playing big brother, not just to his NBAC compatriots but to the entire wave of first-time Olympians who will represent the U.S. in the pool in Brazil. They include the 22-year-old Kalisz, who has emulated Phelps since he was in grade school, and 20-year-old Cierra Runge, another next-generation NBAC swimmer who will join Schmitt on the Olympic 4x200-meter relay team.
Phelps jokes about how many of these swimmers he doesn't know and the goofy questions they pose to him. But he's excited and a touch relieved to welcome the youth brigade.
"Because there have been some times where I was kind of second guessing to see if we had really exciting kids that were ready to step up and fill our shoes when we leave," he said. "But I see that more and more in the sport every day."
Some questions remain about the new wave given that only a few have swum best-of-2016 times this week.
But it's rejuvenating for a swimmer who's been here so many times to see the euphoria of a first-time Olympian such as Runge, the Pennsylvania native who fell into a joyous stupor — stuck between laughter and tears in her own words — when she realized what she'd achieved in the 200-meter freestyle.
Of course, there's a flip side to the march of time. Some of Phelps' contemporaries, such as the mountainous backstroke star Matt Grevers, have failed to make the team.
"There's no room for me," the 31-year-old Grevers said Thursday in one of the most poignant summations of athletic obsolescence you'll ever hear.
Old men don't sleep as much, right?
So, as the night on which Phelps qualified for a fifth Olympics bled into the early hours of his birthday, he could not catch a wink.
He was wide awake at 5 a.m. Thursday, with more than seven hours to go until he would swim his preliminary heat in the 200-meter individual medley. So he decided to pester Bowman.
"I knew Bob was awake, so I started firing texts," he said. "He pretty much just said shut up and get ready for this morning."
Phelps seemed ready enough for his first swim as a 31-year-old, gliding to the wall to win his heat in 1 minute, 58.95 seconds. His old friend and rival, Lochte, swam slightly faster in the previous heat, finishing in 1 minute, 58.05 seconds. The pattern held in the evening semifinals with both men lowering their times.
"I feel older," Phelps said immediately after his prelim race. "My muscles aren't the same, so they hurt a lot worse this morning. But this is the grind time for me over the next couple of days."
Asked how he'd celebrate his birthday, he said, "I'm not."
Phelps always refuses to specify his goals for a meet or a year or, especially, an Olympics. But he frequently points out that he has not swum a best time in any event since 2009. Some of that has to do with aging, some has to do with his inconsistent work habits and some has to do with the disappearance of high-tech swimsuits from the sport. But you get the sense that if he would pick one milestone for the last six weeks of his career …
"I would like to have maybe one more before I retire. I hope," he said of a personal-best swim.
"But in all fairness," Bowman said, "some of those records are …"
"They're ridiculous," Phelps said.
"Some of them, you were in the prime of your prime, and everything was going right," Bowman said.
"I don't know," Phelps said. "I believe any record is beatable."