The greatest Olympian in history is making another trip to the Summer Games.
Michael Phelps won the 200 fly final at U.S. Olympic trials on Wednesday night, in a time that'll make him a gold-medal favorite in Rio. The 30-year-old will become the first American man to ever compete in five Olympics and the only American to ever swim the same event five times. He won the 200 fly, his signature events, back-to-back in Athens and Beijing and then suffered one of the great upsets in swimming history when he came in second in London to South African Chad Le Clos.
Phelps will also swim the 100 butterfly and 200 individual medley at the trials, events in which he's back-to-back-to-back reigning champion at the Olympics. (Maybe the 200 isn't his signature event?) He'd already dropped the 100 and 200 freestyle, allowing him to focus on those three events – his best. Phelps would have been an underdog to make it in the 100 and just a contender in the 200, an event he won in the 2008 Olympics and finished third in the so-called “Race of the Century” at the 2004 Games. It was the right move. Thirty isn't 20.
Not swimming the 100 and 200 freestyle could have an effect on whether Phelps swims both freestyle relays in Rio, but with his stature, times and his coach Bob Bowman, serving as the head coach of Team USA, it'd be a surprise if Phelps didn't swim at least one. If he were to compete in all relays and make the team in his other events, Phelps would have a chance to win six more medals in Brazil.
That would add to his record haul of 22 medals, a staggering number in its own right, but one made even more remarkable given that 18 of them are gold. (He also has two silver and two bronze medals. Phelps has competed in 24 Olympic events – the only in which he didn't medal were in his first-ever event in the 2000 Olympics and, in a major surprise, the 400 IM in London.) No other swimmer has more than 12. Only one other athlete in any event has more than 15. Dominant is an understatement.
It was a safe bet that no one would touch Phelps' medal haul after his retirement in London. Now that he's almost certain to add a minimum of three, it's more like a guarantee.
Phelps' sporting saga is one of those tales that's easy to take for granted because he's been around so long and his presence at the Games feel routine. When you take a step back, however, it becomes one of the greatest stories in the annals of sport. (The Williams sister in tennis are afflicted by the same sort of contemporary apathy.)
Michael Phelps has been around the swimming scene since 1997. He became an international star in 2004. Four years later, he became anthe Olympic legend by setting out to win eight golds in Beijing and then doing just that, featuring two of the wildest, crazy finishes the sport has ever seen.
The man who has been competing in Olympics for half his life had ups and downs outside the pool following his star turn in Beijing. There was the infamous bong photo and drinking-related issues. In the pool, Phelps started his London program disastrously, but came back with a strong finish (four golds, two silvers in total; two golds and one silver in individual events). He promptly retired but surprised no one by coming back, then derailed himself with a second DUI that earned him a deserved (but Draconian in length) suspension.
Phelps, now a father, says he's been transformed since that moment. His public life and results in the pool are the best evidence of that. In his last two Olympics, greatness seemed to be a burden to Michael Phelps. He looks like he's having fun in the pool for the first time in over a decade.
Come August, Phelps will once again be the star of the Olympics, sharing a twin bill with Usain Bolt, who follows Phelps by running in the second week of the Games, for the third straight Games. For Phelps, will be 31 years old by the time the Olympic cauldron is lit, results short of perfection will no longer be a surprise, but his times indicate that there's plenty of gold in his future.
A fifth Olympics for a swimmer is a rarity. Of the nearly 400 athletes who've competed in five or more Games, most are from sports that emphasize mind and technique over physicality (fencing, equestrian, shooting, sailing). Only two swimmers have competed in six Olympics and Phelps will become the 12th to compete in five (and just the second American, behind Dara Torres). The difference is that if you add up the medals won by each of the 12 international swimmers on the aforementioned list, you get seven. Add Torres' haul and you have 19, still three behind Phelps.
Don't buy into the contrarian take that Phelps' medal haul is somehow less impressive because he competes in a sport in which you can win more medals than in any other. (A wrestler has one shot for gold. A swimmer can have a half-dozen or more.) But if it's so easy, then everybody would be doing it, no? Look at it this way: In six weeks, Michael Phelps will have double the medals of any other American Olympian. Swimming helps the volume, but not the process.
But the medals aren't Phelps' greatest trick. There are plenty of Olympic stars who appear on your television two weeks in every four years. You follow them, you root them as if they were your own family and then you forget about them. The Marylander is the first star of his generation to compete in a non-revenue Olympic sport and remain vital for the other 206 weeks.
After Wednesday's easy win, the countdown begins for the most dominant athlete the Summer Games have ever seen. Michael Phelps begins his fifth Olympics in 40 days. Savor it. You'll never see anything like it again.