OMAHA, NEB. — Michael Phelps held five fingers high after his hand hit the wall, a sure sign he realized he'd done something much larger than win another race.
With his victory in the 200-meter butterfly on Wednesday evening, Phelps became the first American male swimmer to qualify for five Olympics. But the moment felt heavier than that even. He thought he never wanted to swim again in 2012 and in the four years since, he had plunged into an emotional abyss, been arrested, learned volumes about himself in therapy, found love and become a dad.
All of it seemed to wash over him as he processed the swim that guaranteed him a place in Rio de Janeiro.
"I think that means the most to me," he said in the moments after the race, pausing as tears welled in his eyes. "With everything that's happened to me, sort of being able to come back, that was probably harder than any swim I've had in my life. … Just being able to finish [my career] how I want to is so important to me."
Less than an hour later, he handed his 8-week-old son Boomer, who was sound asleep, his first post-victory stuffed animal — a shark.
Phelps had celebrated as his protege, Chase Kalisz, seized an Olympic spot, and he had watched as other stars of his generation faltered. But finally it was Phelps' turn to heft his old mantle as the most indomitable champion the sport has ever seen.
He was not at his best but still held off Tom Shields by almost a second. Shields shook his head when asked what it would take to beat Phelps.
"I'm still trying to figure out how so I can have that stop happening," he said, echoing the lament of so many world-class swimmers who've gone head to head with Phelps.
In the other showcase race of the night, Katie Ledecky continued laying waste to her competition with an easy win in the women's 200-meter freestyle. Allison Schmitt, Phelps' close friend and training partner, finished fourth.
Schmitt won gold in the 200 free at the 2012 Olympics, and the race represented her best chance to make this year's team in an individual event. She will still go to Rio as a member of the women's 4X200 relay team, a significant triumph considering she nearly quit the sport two years ago when depression sapped her motivation.
She was overcome with emotion after the race.
"It's been a tough four years, but I'm so excited," she said. "Oh gosh, I don't remember the last time I had happy tears. It's not exactly the race I wanted, but I can't complain. … I honestly didn't think that I would be standing here at Olympic trials again."
Bob Bowman, who has coached Schmitt and Phelps through all their ups and downs, said he cried at both of their medal ceremonies, a first for him.
Schmitt regained much of her form over the past 18 months, but she could not swim quite as fast as she did at her peak, and that's what she would have needed to stay with Ledecky, who beat Missy Franklin by more than a second.
The 19-year-old Bethesda native first established her dominance at longer distances, but she's now nearly as formidable at 200 meters, with the 100-meter sprint her next horizon to conquer. She's approaching the kind of multievent dominance that only Phelps and a few others have achieved.
The 200 butterfly holds a unique place in Phelps' career. It was the race in which he first qualified for the Olympics as a 15-year-old, the youngest American male to make the team in 68 years. It was the race in which he became the youngest male swimmer ever to break a world record. He still holds the four fastest 200 butterfly times in history.
But it's also the race in which Phelps lost to a cocky young South African named Chad le Clos at the 2012 Olympics. That swim, more than his fourth-place finish in the 400-meter individual medley, stuck in Phelps' craw.
He gained a small measure of revenge last summer when he re-established himself as the fastest in the world with a time better than Le Clos' gold-medal mark from 2012. But he won't be truly satisfied unless he beats the South African and Hungarian Laszlo Cseh in Rio.
Phelps knows he'll have to be better there than he was at trials to pull it off. He wasn't particularly happy with any of his swims over the past two days, even though he won each of his races decisively.
"This 200 fly that will happen in a few weeks will probably be the hardest 200 fly that I've ever done," he said after winning in 1 minute, 54.84 seconds, nearly two seconds worse than his world-best time of 2015. "Getting ready for some of the guys who have put up some pretty good times this year and last year, that's what I have to prepare for."
Earlier in the day, he skipped the 100-meter freestyle in favor of resting up for the 200 butterfly final.
He was entered in both the 100- and 200-meter freestyle but did not swim either. That calls into question his possible place on freestyle relay teams at the Olympics. The 4x100 and 4x200 relays used to be part of his bedrock program at major meets.
Bowman is the men's Olympic coach this year, and he could place Phelps on at least one of the relay teams regardless. But the scratches could also signal that Phelps has decided to focus on his three individual events — the 100- and 200-meter butterfly and the 200-meter individual medley. He's also expected to be on the medley relay team, assuming he holds his form in the 100 butterfly.
His lighter schedule is a concession to age; he'll turn 31 on Thursday and does not recover from races as quickly as he once did. Already this week, he has watched several old Olympic comrades struggle in signature events.
Franklin finished seventh in the women's 100-meter backstroke after winning gold in the event in London. Matt Grevers also won gold in the 100 back in 2012 only to finish third in a ferociously contested men's final Tuesday. Phelps' oldest rival, Ryan Lochte, has fallen short in both of his individual races, though he's headed to Rio de Janeiro as part of the 4x200 relay team.
It did not escape Phelps that he was the only 30-year-old in the 200 butterfly semifinals Tuesday.
"I see a lot of new faces on the team," he said after winning his semifinal. "I don't even know half of them."
He said that's promising for U.S. swimming. "People are really pumped to come up into the sport, and I think for me, that's a good thing to see as I'm on my way out."
At the same time, he could only laugh at some of the questions younger swimmers have asked him this week.
"What do you think about before you swim?" one inquired.
"Nothing," Phelps replied.
"Are you kidding?" the kid asked.
He wasn't. He believes in turning his mind off and trusting the work he's done to get to this point. He then chastised himself for not doing that as well as usual on Tuesday his first day of competition. Even 18-time gold medalists tighten up on occasion.
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