OMAHA — Eleven years ago, the incomparable Ian Thorpe turned in a swim of refined beauty in the 200 meter freestyle. It was at the 2001 world championships in Fukuoka, Japan, and he swam it in 1 minute, 44.06 seconds, a world record.
It took another magnificent swim for that record to fall. Michael Phelps went 1:43.86 at the 2007 world championships in Melbourne, Australia, a swim that happened in the dead of night back home in the United States.
Most Americans never really saw what Michael Phelps could do in the 200 free until the Beijing Olympics, when he went 1:42.96. There, they saw the power, the grace, the aesthetic beauty of the way he drove through the water in the simplest, most elegant stroke known to humankind.
In announcing Monday that he would not defend his Olympic 200 free title in London, Phelps and his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, are assuredly making the shrewd, tactical move.
Even so, a pause before we get there to appreciate Phelps and his place in the 200 free. In 2004, for instance, at the Athens Games, he stepped in against Thorpe and Holland’s Pieter van den Hoogenband. Thorpe won, in Olympic-record time, van den Hoogenband coming in second. Phelps took third, in a then-American record 1:45.32. And he was criticized — by some, who didn’t understand — for “only” winning bronze.
Over the years, there have been so many dozens of Phelps 200s. Some have been truly remarkable; some, naturally, less so. When he is on, there is a glide and a seemingly effortless elegance to his stroke. Even though he had just come down from six weeks at altitude in Colorado Springs, this week you could sense the glide starting to emerge, and for that reason it’s melancholy to think he won’t be swimming the 200 in London.
That said, logic dictates any number of reasons why he shouldn’t.
It frees him up for other races. They will include both the 100 and 200 butterflys; the 200 and 400 IMs; and all three relays, and in particular the 400 free relay.
No male swimmer has ever pulled the individual three-peat — that is, won the same event in three straight Olympics.
Meanwhile, the 400 free relay is a key marker for the U.S. team. Schedule-wise, moreover, the relay final comes on the same day as the preliminaries and semifinals of the 200 freestyle. The heats and semis of the 200 fly come the very next day, as does the final of the 200 free.
“That’s a tough program Michael swims,” Gregg Troy, who will serve as the U.S. men’s national coach in London, said at a news conference here Monday. “It’s really tough. He’s a little bit older” — Phelps turned 27 on Saturday — “and those older guys don’t recover quite as quickly, and it’s hard to do.”
It takes the burden off another eight-event program; including relays, Phelps will likely swim seven in London. Now he won’t have to answer any questions — not even one — about eight events.
`It’s so much smarter for me to do that,” Phelps told the Associated Press. “We’re not trying to recreate what happened in Beijing. It just makes sense.”
Bowman told reporters Monday, “Yes, we won’t hear the number eight again after this press conference. As Michael said all along, it wasn’t going to be eight. He has said that for the last four years.”
Moreover, and not incidentally, it means that the last 200 free he ever swims against Ryan Lochte is, for the history books, a win for Phelps, here in Omaha at the U.S. Trials, by five-hundredths of a second.
In London, Phelps and Lochte will swim head-to-head only in the 200 and 400 IMs.
You can believe that Phelps and Bowman have made four swimmers really, really happy:
— Ricky Berens, who now gets to swim in the 200 free. He had finished third, behind Phelps and Lochte.
— Davis Tarwater, who now gets added to the U.S. team. He had been seventh in the 200 free final.
— Park Tae-Hwan of South Korea. Lochte, who won the 200 free at the 2011 worlds in Shanghai, is the gold medal favorite. But Park, who in Beijing won silver in the 200 and gold in the 400, has to be thrilled Phelps won’t be swimming.
— Paul Biedermann of Germany. Biedermann now holds the world record in the 200, 1:42 flat, set in Rome at the 2009 world championships, during the crazy plastic-suit era. He hasn’t come close to that time since swimmers have gone back to textile suits, and has freely admitted that the suits helped his times.
Biedermann finished fifth in Beijing in the 200 in 1:46. Now, with Phelps out of the picture, he must be thinking he might be able to medal.
Two nights ago, Phelps and Bowman were sitting at the dais, and Phelps, as the news conference drew to a close, was reflecting on the Trials while also looking forward to London. He said, “There are some things that I want to finish my career with” — as usual, he didn’t enumerate them — “and I know they’re going to be challenging, and Bob and I have a couple of weeks to try to perfect those.”
And that, too, is why Phelps won’t be swimming the 200 free.