Michael Phelps had two plays available to him for the upcoming US Olympic swimming trials June 25-July 2 in Omaha, Neb.
Say, “I have my eight gold medals from 2008. I have very little to almost zero chance of besting myself so I am going to just do a couple of events and do them well.”
Or say, “What the hell?” and go out swinging with a challenging program.
That he chose the latter is why Phelps is one of the most recognizable Olympians going to London and among the greatest athletes of my generation. His history says he does not do easy, and his program for the trials suggests he is not about going quietly into that good night.
The Olympics is his last meet, and he’s all in.
He has announced he is entered in seven events in Omaha. It does not matter there is a 99.9 percent chance he will not swim all of them. This schedule gives us a hint to what he might swim — starting with the 400-meter individual medley on Day 1 — and it is way more ambitious than almost everybody predicted.
Phelps’ schedule includes the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys, 100 and 200 freestyle, 100 and 200 butterfly and 200 backstroke. So even if he drops the 100 freestyle and 200 backstroke, as anticipated, he would still swim almost the exact same program as he did four years ago when he won eight gold medals.
As impressive as what he did four years ago in Beijing was, this is maybe more so. It is certainly more ballsy. This is a guy who knows he will be compared to 2008 Phelps, is likely to fail against that standard and is getting up on the block anyway.
Four years ago, when he stepped on a block, there was no doubt he would win. He knew. His fellow swimmers knew. Everybody in the swimming cube in Beijing knew.
Nobody knows now, not for sure, although the world smells blood in the water. As recently as a couple of weeks ago in Austin, Texas, Phelps labored his way through the back half of the 400 IM.
“I’d say OK, not great, not bad, just kind of OK” was how his coach Bob Bowman described Phelps’ IM. “I didn’t like his freestyle particularly and his second lap of breast stroke. Other than that, it was pretty good.”
Phelps easily could have avoided the 400 IM at trials and thereby avoided a showdown with his rival, Ryan Lochte, and a possible ugly start to the trials.
Lochte has been a pain in Phelps’ butt since Beijing.
Lochte has been coming and coming, talking about how “this is my time” and backing that up by beating Phelps pretty handily in 2011 at the World Championships in Shanghai. And since then almost all anybody has talked about has been Phelps versus Lochte going into London.
“There is no way around it. The big talk of 2012 is going to be me and Michael,” Lochte told a few reporters gathered in Atlanta back in December. “I put myself in that kind of position where I have gotten a lot faster since 2008, and I’m able to race the world’s greatest swimmer, and it’s an honor to be racing against him.”
The only way around it would have been if Phelps had shied away from as many potential duels with Lochte as possible. Nobody would have faulted Phelps.
He had, after all, declared himself done with the 400 IM after Beijing. It is a grueling event, the most grueling in all of swimming.
He brought it back into his program at grand prixes this year, frankly, as a training tool. He talked in Indianapolis of the 400 IM as the “slap in the face” he needed to show him where he was and where he needed to get to perform like he wants to in Omaha and in London.
Now, it looks as if Phelps is prepared to give everybody what they want — him versus the hardest event in swimming, him versus himself, him versus Lochte.
Three such showdowns loom for Omaha and London — the 200 and 400 IMs and the 200 freestyle. And while Phelps is not what he was four years ago, he very well could win all those events.
We are talking about the greatest swimmer in the world.
And regardless of what Phelps ends up swimming in Omaha, qualifying for and winning in London, there is a glory in saying, “What the hell” and going out swinging.