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Five things we learned from Olympic swimming trials

Michael Phelps, left, and Ryan Lochte start the men's 200-meter individual medley at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, Friday, July 1, 2016, in Omaha, Neb.
Michael Phelps, left, and Ryan Lochte start the men's 200-meter individual medley at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, Friday, July 1, 2016, in Omaha, Neb. (Mark J. Terrill / AP)

Michael Phelps is still the best swimmer of his generation but he'll need to be better in Rio.

To a casual observer, Phelps accomplished exactly what he needed to in Omaha, Neb., qualifying for a fifth Olympics in his three individual events. Where several of his contemporaries failed to make the U.S. team at all, Phelps handled his business.

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He also enjoyed an emotionally gratifying week, celebrating his climb back from severe personal struggles with support from his fiancee, Nicole Johnson, and their 8-week-old son, Boomer.

But Phelps did not swim particularly fast by his standards or the standards of the top competitors he'll face in Rio de Janeiro. Despite 18 months of hard training, his legs did not have quite the juice he expected, especially on Friday, when he swam three races in less than eight hours.

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Phelps turned 31 on Thursday, and his relative struggles are partly an inevitable consequence of aging. But he mustered his old magic last summer in San Antonio, where he swam the best times of 2015 in each of the individual events he'll swim in Rio. He and longtime coach Bob Bowman will spend the next four weeks searching for ways to tap that well of inspiration one last time.

After this week, it's an open question to what degree they can pull it off.

Katie Ledecky is as invulnerable as we thought in her signature events.

Expect casual Olympic fans, who haven't paid attention the past four years, to be in awe as they watch the 19-year-old from Bethesda swim away from her competition in the 400- and 800-meter freestyle.

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Leah Smith actually gave Ledecky a good, hard race in the 400, but that just means Smith is the leading contender for a silver medal in Rio. She was never a threat to pass the world record holder.

In the 800, Ledecky is simply absurd, so much faster than her competitors that they're not visible in television shots of her on the lead. The 10 best times in history all belong to her.

But it's Ledecky's versatility that has her positioned to succeed Phelps as the ruler of American swimming. She's also the gold-medal favorite in the 200-meter freestyle, which she won at trials. Her dominance in the 200 is not absolute. World record holder Federica Pellegrini of Italy is among those who could push her in Rio. Which should make that race all the more fun to watch.

The scariest thing about Ledecky's trials performance is that unlike most of her competitors, she was not fully rested or "tapered." She didn't need to be. So she could still swim faster at the Olympics.

The next generation is here but how good is it?

The overarching story of trials was the wave of first-time Olympians taking over the U.S. team. Sure, old standbys such as Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin will be in Rio. But in many events, they'll be handing the baton to younger swimmers such as Bel Air native Chase Kalisz, backstroke wizard Ryan Murphy, breaststroke star Lilly King and butterfly sprinter Kelsi Worrell.

Other first-timers are veterans such as David Plummer and Maya DiRado (the only one other than Ledecky and Phelps to win three individual events), who are swimming better than they ever have.

Phelps said he was relieved to see so many new faces because, for a long time, he wondered if the next generation would continue the country's longtime dominance in Olympic swimming.

It's still a fair question, actually. Because, for as many strong swims as we saw from first-time qualifiers, this was not a meet where many competitors challenged world or even American records. International swimmers still hold the best times of 2016 in the majority of events.

The U.S. team will likely rack up medals as it always does. Ledecky will likely be the most dominant swimmer in Rio. But it will be fascinating to watch how many first-time Olympians actually come home with gold.

The U.S. team does not have a phenom this year.

We've grown used to high-school-aged prodigies, usually women, bursting on the scene at the Olympics. Four years ago, Franklin was the bubbly sensation of the team and Ledecky stunned everyone by winning a gold medal at 15.

But there's not an obvious candidate to fill that role in 2016. Even most of the first-time Olympians are either college-aged or older. Ledecky remains the youngest swimmer on the team.

Some potential teen stars such as 16-year-old Cassidy Bayer and 17-year-old Michael Andrew swam well, but none broke through.

This was a week for goodbyes.

As the new Olympians staked their claims, a number of familiar faces either reached the end of the line or bore little resemblance to the swimmers they used to be.

Natalie Coughlin didn't come close to making the team at age 33, though the 12-time Olympic medalist said she's not retiring.

Tyler Clary, 27, retired on the spot after he finished third in the 200-meter backstroke, an event in which he won Olympic gold four years ago.

Franklin made the team but could not muster anywhere near the speed she demonstrated in 2012 when she was the 17-year-old sensation of the U.S. team.

No one, however, met the disappointment with any more grace than 31-year-old Matt Grevers. He finished third in a brutally competitive 100-meter backstroke final, an event in which he won gold in 2012 and in which he would have contended for an Olympic medal this year. Then he gave up his spot in the 200 backstroke semifinals, figuring he'd give a younger swimmer a shot.

"There's no room for me," he said.

Step back and consider that third place at trials means the end for some of the best swimmers in the world, who've spent four years or more working to reach this point. It's as unforgiving a sporting event as you'll ever see.

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