Phelps takes second in 200-meter butterfly semi to qualify for Tuesday's final

RIO DE JANEIRO — Michael Phelps pivoted Monday from the furious speed and warm fellowship of his opening relay victory to the individual battles that will define the rest of his fifth Olympics.

No way could two preliminary races in the 200-meter butterfly live up to the electric jolt of Phelps' fastest-ever relay split and the 19th career gold medal that came with it.


But a tired Phelps set himself up for his first individual final of the Rio Games on Tuesday night, one in which he'll face his two great butterfly nemeses — Hungarian stalwart Laszlo Cseh and South African tormentor Chad le Clos.

Both swam faster than him on Monday afternoon. But he came back to qualify faster than either in his Monday night semifinal, finishing in 1 minute, 54.12 seconds to earn the No. 2 seed for Tuesday's final. Another Hungarian, Tamas Kenderesi, emerged as a serious threat in the race, swimming the fastest qualifying time.


"I feel a lot better than I did this morning," Phelps said. "Getting a two-hour nap at home felt really amazing. So I'll get a good night's sleep tonight and it should be a fun race tomorrow."

Phelps beat le Clos in their first head-to-head race in Rio, though le Clos had just won a silver medal in the 200-meter freestyle, so he was less rested.

Phelps seemed amused when asked about the renewal of their sometimes testy rivalry.

"Tomorrow's race, I would expect, will get a lot of hype," he said.

In other action, Katie Ledecky finished second in her semifinal heat of the 200-meter freestyle, which was always expected to be her most difficult individual event this week. She will be the No. 2 seed to Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden in the Tuesday night final.

"It's the semifinal," she said with uncharacteristic bite. "It's the third round that counts."

Like Phelps, the Bethesda teenager came off an epic gold-medal swim from the night before, a longer one at that. But she appeared barely out of breath after dashing off a preliminary time that would have put her fifth in the world rankings for 2016 (she already holds the top time of the year).

That's the difference between being a great swimmer at age 19 and being a great swimmer at 31 as Phelps is.

Meanwhile, Missy Franklin, the breakout U.S. star of the 2012 Games, failed to qualify for the final in the 200 freestyle, finishing last in her semifinal heat. The result was not a shock given Franklin's times over the last year and at Olympic Trials. She'll have another chance in her better event, the 200-meter backstroke, on Thursday. But Franklin was distraught in the moments after the race.

Among the contingent of younger Americans, 21-year-old Ryan Murphy won a gold medal and nearly set a world record in the 100-meter backstroke and 19-year-old Lilly King won gold in the 100-meter breaststroke against Russian Yulia Efimova, widely booed here because of her two past doping suspensions. King's win prompted loud chants of "USA, USA" at the Aquatics Stadium.

Phelps, more outspoken than ever regarding doping at the Olympics, offered pointed words about Efimova.

"I think it's sad that in sports today, we have people who are testing positive not only once but twice and still having the opportunity to compete at these Games," he said. "It breaks my heart, and I wish somebody would do something about it."


For his part, Phelps, the longest standing of all the American stars, merely tried to get through his work on Monday.

If the 4x100-meter relay final felt like a fever dream, with Phelps saying his heart just about exploded out of his chest on the starting block, his qualifying races were a return to mundane reality.

On Sunday night, he got a massage, sat in an ice bath and gobbled a pound of spaghetti (not his favorite food) just to recover from his all-out swim in the relay. He didn't get to bed until 3 a.m. and had to make an 11 a.m. bus to the Olympic Aquatics Stadium for his first individual race of the Games.

Phelps comfortably qualified for the Monday night semifinals with a time of 1 minute, 55.73 seconds. But he was clearly holding energy in reserve to avoid overtaxing his 31-year-old body.

His ability to handle multiple races in a short span will be a significant story this week, especially on Thursday, when he's expected to swim both the 200-meter individual medley final and two qualifying races for the 100-meter butterfly.
Recovery is the one area in which he's most diminished from his prime.

He was breathing hard and rubbing his aching muscles as he talked to reporters after his afternoon preliminary. He sported a dark, circular bruise on his right shoulder, created by the suction-based therapy known as cupping.

"Quick turnaround," he said. "But the good thing is we have a long time in between prelims and finals, so we are able to rest."

The greatest swimmer ever needed a nap.

The 200 butterfly holds an essential place in Phelps' history.

It was the event in which he first qualified for the Olympics as a largely unknown 15-year-old raised in Towson.

It was the event in which he became the youngest male swimmer (15 years, 9 months) ever to break a world record the following March.

It was the event in which he signaled his return to peak form with a world-best time last summer.

It was also the event in which he experienced his greatest frustration of the 2012 Olympics. Phelps sought a third consecutive gold medal in the 200 butterfly, but he ran into a confident young South African who'd grown up studying his races.

Le Clos roared back from third at the final turn to edge past Phelps at the wall. Though Phelps was gracious at the time, he has often alluded to how much the loss bothered him.

His rivalry with le Clos gained spice last year when they swam at parallel meets—the South African at FINA World Championships and Phelps at Phillips 66 National Championships.

After le Clos laid down a world-best time in the 100 butterfly, he said: "I'm just very happy that he's back to his good form, so he can't come out and say, 'Oh, I haven't been training,' or all that rubbish that he's been talking. Next year is going to be Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier."

Phelps responded by swimming faster in the same event an ocean away. "The comments were interesting," he said when asked about le Clos. "It just fuels me. If you want to do it, go for it. I welcome it."

The 24-year-old le Clos has lived through difficult times away from the pool. His father Bert, always an ebullient presence in his corner, is fighting prostate cancer. His mother, Geraldine, recently had surgery to treat breast cancer. Both are in Rio to support their son.

Whether that backdrop will take any edge off his competition with Phelps remains to be seen.

This is not merely a two-way rivalry, however. Cseh posted the best time of 2016 in May, going faster than Phelps did in his world-best 200 butterfly last year. Cseh also beat le Clos for a 2015 world championship.


Cseh is similar to Phelps in that he's 30, swims multiple events and won medals at each Olympics from 2004 to 2012.


But the Hungarian, always easy to pick out because of his shaved scalp, has never beaten Phelps in an Olympic or world championship final.

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