Allison Schmitt

Simply America's best: Phelps, Ledecky

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OMAHA — Brendan Hansen, the breaststroke standout and six-time Olympic medalist, is here at the 2016 U.S. swim Trials as a poolside announcer. Before the action got underway Wednesday, he lined up four teen-agers and asked: who are you here to see? One by one, on the big screen, here were the answers: Michael Phelps. And Katie Ledecky.

No duh.

Phelps back on the victory stand // Getty Images

The U.S. swim team that goes to Rio will be filled with a big chunk of names new to most people who know swimming only on NBC, and every four years:

Newcomers: Olivia Smoliga. Lilly King. Townley Haas. And more, among them Kevin Cordes, already the winner of the men’s 100 breaststroke who flirted with the world record in the 200 breast Wednesday, winning his semifinal in 2:07.81.

To be clear, there will be a few familiar faces, too: Ryan Lochte, who has qualified at the least for the relays. Allison Schmitt, the women’s 200 free gold medalist in London, qualified Wednesday for the relays. Assuming all goes to plan in Thursday’s final, expect to see Nathan Adrian, who rocked a 47.91, second-best time in the world in 2016 in the semifinal of the men’s 100.

But let’s face it: the headliners are Phelps and Ledecky.

Katie Ledecky, left, and Missy Franklin after the 200 free // Getty Images

And a little later, at the victory ceremony // Getty Images

And that’s with a full measure of  respect for Missy Franklin, who pulled off one of the gutsiest swims of her career Wednesday to grab the No. 2 spot in the women’s 200 free, behind Ledecky.

Phelps — as he has been for so long — is simply America’s best. So, too, Ledecky.

In winning the men’s 200 butterfly Wednesday in 1:54.84, Phelps became the first male swimmer to qualify for a  fifth straight Olympic team. He turns 31 on Thursday. His first Games, in Sydney in 2000, came when he was just 15. He finished fifth there in the 200 fly. That was the start of the string of all the superlatives since — the 22 Olympic medals, 18 gold, the eight-for-eight in Beijing.

After looking up at the end of Wednesday’s 200 to see his time, Phelps held up all five fingers, signaling Olympics No. 5. Tom Shields took second, in 1:55.81.

Phelps’ 7-week-old son, Boomer, was poolside, with mom Nicole Johnson. For the occasion, Boomer wore noise-canceling headphones dressed up with American flags. After the medal ceremony, Phelps walked around the pool to the section where they were sitting; Nicole, carrying the baby, came down some stairs; father tenderly kissed his baby boy.

Phelps’ longtime coach and mentor, Bob Bowman, said he shed a few tears — maybe the first time ever at such ceremonies — thinking of all the turbulent waters he, Phelps and Schmitt, who is like a sister to Phelps, have navigated.

“It means we have been through a hell of a lot,” Bowman said. “A hell of a lot.”

Before the race, Zach Harting, in Lane 7, came out dressed as Batman. He was duly announced as "The Dark Knight."

Phelps, over in Lane 4, played -- what else -- Superman. As usual at the pool, with little fanfare. He simply wrote another fine line in the Phelps record book.

Phelps led the race wire to wire. At 150 meters, just as he had wanted, he was at 1:22 -- specifically, 1:22.94 -- with a world-record 1:50 a possibility. That last 50, though, he would say later, “the piano fell pretty hard.” He got home in 31.9; five guys in the race, including Harting, swam the final 50 between 30 and 31 seconds. Shields, trying to hang with Phelps, managed his final 50 in 32.08.

A further comparison: in 2015, Phelps went 1:52.94. That was his fastest time in the 200 fly since 2009, when he set the world record, 1:51.51.

For the record: Batman finished seventh, 2.08 back.

Phelps being Phelps, that final 31.9 is likely to give him ample motivation between now and Rio: "... I don't know what happened the last 50. I was just praying to hit the wall first or second."

Bowman: "It isn't 50. It was like the last 20."

Too, there now awaits the challenge of racing South Africa’s Chad le Clos, who out-touched Phelps for gold in the London 200 fly. Phelps said, “I didn’t have the chance to race him last summer. I am looking forward to racing him this summer.”

Phelps still has the 200 IM and 100 fly to go.

“Now,” he told the crowd a few moments after the race in a pool-deck interview, “let’s have some fun over these next couple events and see what happens.”

In winning the women’s 200 freestyle in 1:54.88, Ledecky made emphatically clear what has been apparent to swim nerds since last summer’s world championships in Kazan, Russia: she is not just the best women’s swimmer in the United States but the world.

No one else is really close.

Four years ago, when she was 15, Ledecky won the 800 in London. Since, she has come to dominate women’s swimming at every race from 200 up: 200, 400, 800 and the 1500, what swimmers call the mile.

Ledecky qualified earlier here for the 400. The 800 prelims are Friday, finals Saturday. There is no women’s 1500 at the Olympics. Here in Omaha, she will also be swimming the 100 free; the prelims are Thursday morning.

At 150 meters Wednesday, Ledecky and Franklin were 1-2. Ledecky then went 29.54 over the final 50. Franklin: 30.3.

Franklin touched in 1:56.18.

That amounts to a full 1.3 seconds behind Ledecky. In a race like the 200 free, that is a lot.

The announcement that Ledecky was now the racer to beat took place at last summer’s worlds in far-away Russia, when Ledecky dropped down to the 200 — after dominating the 400, 800 and 1500 — and won that, too.

The race Wednesday merely proved the next chapter: every single one of Ledecky's four splits proved faster than Franklin's.

In relating these facts, no one should infer — because none is implied — anything but appreciation  for Franklin, who finished seventh Tuesday in the 100 back, an event she used to dominate.

No matter the situation, Franklin comports herself with respect and grace for herself and family, the sport and about everyone she meets.

She is a class act, and the U.S. team is all the better for having her now on the way to Rio.

As her longtime coach, Todd Schmitz, would tweet late Wednesday:

https://twitter.com/starstodd/status/748333283424018433

She would say after the race, “You know, I think I’ve just been thinking about it a lot differently, you know and I realized that my job here, it’s not to make the Olympic team. It’s not to defend anything. It’s to swim well. That’s always what my job has been, and that’s what I need to continue to do, so it’s me trying to work through and deal with this kind of pressure that I’ve never really dealt with before.

“I think as we just saw — I’m really starting to figure that out to myself.”

Because Ledecky has opted to retain her amateur status — she will be a freshman at Stanford after the Rio Olympics — she simply is not the crossover star that Franklin has become, with multiple big-name sponsors proving eager over the past couple years to attach their campaigns to the smiling, happy, heartfelt Missy brand.

“It’s unbelievable,” Franklin said when asked about Ledecky, “and you look at her and she has that wide range of distances, too, but I think all of us know that if anyone can do it, Katie Ledecky can do it. And to be a part of that and to now know that I get to be on another relay with her and swim another individual event with her, it’s such an honor.

“She makes [me] a better athlete, a better teammate, a better person, and I have 110 percent faith she can do whatever she sets her mind to.”

The thing is, Ledecky is just as super-genuine as Franklin.

Ledecky said of Franklin, “I told her after the race she’s one tough cookie, and she got the job done tonight. That [200] race is for real, and there’s more to come from her.”

The Rio stage means the world gets its chance to catch up with Franklin, for sure. But, really, to fully appreciate Ledecky. And one final chance to appreciate Phelps.

Phelps with the press here in Omaha // Getty Images

Phelps, as he said Wednesday, is — for the first time after being in the public glare for 16 years — not just acknowledging but showing some vulnerability.

Asked if he would remember the 15-year-old who would qualify for Sydney, Phelps said, “I remember him. I definitely remember him.”

Bowman added, “I remember him. At a press conference like this, the question was, do you have a girlfriend and have you kissed her yet? So we have kind of progressed with the subject matter over 16 years.”

Not so clear is how the 15-year-old Phelps would relate to the man who turns 31 on Thursday. On his last day of being 30, Phelps said, “I’m embracing the moment and taking it one step at a time.”

Showing that sort of vulnerability, however, is not the same as being soft on the blocks. Hardly.

The greats, in sum, process pressure and fear differently than the rest of us. For Ledecky and for Phelps in particular, each race makes for an opportunity to see how good he or she can be.

The more-reflective 30-year-old Phelps gave a mini-dissertation here this week on the subject. He said, “Like this guy asked me today, ‘What do you think about before you swim?’ And I was like, ‘Nothing.’ And he was like, ‘Are you kidding?’ I’m like, ‘No, I don’t think about anything.’ But I’ve told a couple swimmers, just turn your mind off. You’ve done the work to get here, so it’s just time to get in the water and let it loose.”

U.S. Kazan 2015 mantra: 'are defeats necessary?'

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KAZAN, Russia — David Plummer is a championship backstroker. Here, he served as a captain of the U.S. team. Two years ago, at the world championships in Barcelona, Plummer earned silver in the 100 back. Here, though, he managed only a ninth-place finish, not even good enough to make the finals, ultimately won by Australia’s Mitchell Larkin. As the 2015 world championships drew Sunday to a close, Plummer turned to Twitter, and some philosophy from the Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho:

“I ask myself: are defeats necessary? Well, necessary or not, they happen…

“The secret of life, though, is to fall seven times and to get up eight times.

“Only when we overcome [our trials] do we understand why they were there.”

David Plummer in the heats of the 50 backstroke // Getty Images

The quest for understanding begins now.

These 2015 Kazan world championships marked arguably the American team’s poorest performance in the history of the world championships, dating to 1973.

When all was said and done, the U.S. ended up with 23 medals, eight gold.

The American team’s weakest world championships performance, before this one: 1994, in Rome, with 21 medals, four gold.

Take out the two medals in the mixed relays, both new events (gold in the 4x100 free Saturday, silver in the 4x1 medley Wednesday) and the total drops to 21.

Those figures stand in stark contrast to the 2013 total: 29 overall, 13 gold.

Compare, too, to recent years: 29 and 16 at Shanghai 2011, 22 and 10 in 2009 (Rome again), at the height of the plastic-suit craziness.

The only Americans to win individual gold: Katie Ledecky (four), Ryan Lochte (one). That’s it. The other winners: that mixed relay, the women's 4x200 free relay (anchored by Ledecky), the men's medley.

The question heading toward a different set of Trials, next summer in Omaha, a few weeks before the Aug. 5 start of the Rio Games, is whether what happened here amounts to aberration or the confluence of potent trends that mean the United States’ long-established role at the top of the swimming world is at significant risk.

— It’s indisputable that, owing to the worldwide import of Michael Phelps, world-class swimming has gotten better and, more so, better in more places. Argentina won its first-ever medal here. So, too, Singapore. Akram Ahmed of Egypt took fourth in the men’s 1500 Sunday night. A record 189 nations competed in Kazan, up from 177 at Barcelona 2013.

— The Australians are back, and in a big way. The Aussies won one gold in swimming at the London 2012 Games, three in Barcelona. Here, seven gold, 16 overall.

— The Brits emerged as a force, in particular 200 free champ James May and breaststroke god Adam Peaty. Their final tally: five gold, nine overall.

— The Chinese have both talent and depth, with 13 medals overall, five gold, including Ning Zetao's victory in the 100; he is the first Asian to win swimming's male heavyweight fight.

Ning’s victory made things a little crazy on the internet in China. The Wall Street Journal reported that a CCTV host wrote on his verified account that Ning “is the husband in everyone’s dream.”

Never mind that Ning is just 22.

The same host, referring to the social media-app WeChat, “All women went crazy overnight, and pictures of all angles of his abdominal muscles swept my WeChat moments.”

By mid-day Friday, more than 100,000 web users had posted selfies with the hashtag “Ning Zetao’s Girlfriend.”

“We call handsome boys little fresh meat,” a Weibo user wrote. “But for special ones like Ning, he should be called little fresh fish.”

As for the Americans, and first the bright spots:

— Ledecky raced into the history books, winning five gold medals, the 200, 400, 800 and 1500, and that 4x200 free relay.

In all, Kazan 2015 featured 12 world records. Ledecky set three of them.

For the next year, she will be the face of the American team, which is lovely, because she not only wins, she wins with great class.

On Saturday, after her final race, the 800 free, which she won in world-record time, Ledecky met with the press, then as she was walking away from a media clutch, she met up with a gaggle of red-shirted volunteers who squealed in happiness that she would take a picture with them.

Unaware that three reporters were lingering behind, Ledecky said to the volunteers, “Thanks for all the great work you do.”

Ledecky and Kerri Walsh Jennings, the beach volleyball star, are in this way always gracious and polite to seemingly everyone they meet. Maybe it’s something about Stanford, which is where Walsh Jennings went and Ledecky is due to attend.

— Phelps, assuming he sticks to his vow to keep doing the hard work that swimming absolutely demands, figures to race for gold in at least three events next summer, the 100 and 200 flys and the 200 individual medley.

Swimming this week in San Antonio, at the U.S. nationals, Phelps won the 100 fly in 50.45, the 200 in 1:52.94. Both times would have won here.

More pointedly, both victories came amid some smack-talk from the likes of Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh, winner in Kazan of the 200 fly, and South Africa’s Chad le Clos, winner here of the 100 fly.

Le Clos won Saturday in 50.56, then declared Phelps hadn’t gone that fast in years.

Oops — just hours later in San Antonio, here came that 50.45, Phelps' fastest-time ever in the event in a textile suit.

Le Clos also said here, referring to Phelps, “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.”

Cseh won Wednesday in 1:53.48. Of Phelps’ 1:52.94 in San Antonio, the fastest time by any swimmer since Phelps himself in 2009, Cseh said, “It’s quite good but it doesn’t matter because I won the world championship.”

Gentlemen, we are not here to tell you what to say, or not, but history has shown repeatedly that if Phelps puts in his training blocks, you mess with fire when you blow this kind of smoke.

Ask the likes of Ian Thorpe, Ian Crocker and, famously, Milorad Cavic.

When Phelps has someone he can — in his mind — target, it has not gone well, swim-wise, for said target.

“The comments were interesting,” Phelps said Saturday in San Antonio. “It just fuels me. If you want to do it, go for it. I welcome it.”

— Lochte's victory in the 200 IM made for his fourth world championship gold in a row in the event.

At the same time, he finished fourth in the 200 free, same as in 2013 and 2012.

Lochte is for sure Mr. Reliable on the relays, where the American performance here — without Lochte or Nathan Adrian, the U.S. men failed to qualify for the 4x1 finals — showed just how valuable he is.

Here is the challenge for Lochte in the 200 IM come the U.S. Trials in Omaha and, presumably, Rio:

Phelps.

At an Olympics, the 200 IM traditionally comes on the same night as the 200 back, and thus it will be in Rio, on Thursday, Aug. 11. At previous Games, Lochte has opted to try to pull off that grueling double. In London, he took third in the 200 back, then silver — behind Phelps — in the 200 IM.

-- Connor Jaeger broke the 11-year-old American record in the 1500 on Sunday night, going 14:41.2. Larsen Jensen had gone 14:45.29 at the 2004 Athens Games.

Now for some question marks:

— This U.S. 2015 team was picked a year ago. Was that a good plan? No Caitlin Leverenz, Allison Schmitt, Jack Conger or others who might have made a difference.

— The U.S. sprinting program, excluding Adrian, needs someone to step up, and big time. No one did here.

— Tyler Clary had won a medal of some sort at the 2009, 2011 and 2013 worlds; he is the 2012 London 200 back gold medalist. Here? No medals.

-- Jaeger: That 14:41.2 earned him silver, 1.53 seconds behind Gregorio Paltrinieri of Italy, in 14:39.67. China's Sun Yang, the world record-holder and pre-race favorite, did not swim, saying he felt a heart problem -- literally his heart, not his desire to race -- before the call to the blocks. Jaeger's other Kazan races: fourth, 400 free; fourth, 800 free.

— The relays: That the U.S. men missed out on the finals of the 4x1 free is, in a word, inexcusable. The men’s 4x2 free relay finished second, the first time since 2004 the Americans had not won at a worlds or Olympics (the British took first, with Guy making up a 1.63-second deficit and then some, touching 42-hundredths ahead of Michael Weiss).

In 2001, the U.S. men won no relays. That had been the only time ever at worlds history there had been no U.S. men’s relay gold.

Thus the stakes were high for Sunday night’s medley, the Americans opting to lead off not with Matt Grevers — gold medalist in the 100 back at London 2012 and Barcelona 2013, silver medalist in the event at Beijing 2008 — but with Ryan Murphy, who threw out a 52.18 in the mixed medley relay heats.

The thinking? Larkin won the 100 back in 52.40. Murphy’s 52.18 made for the fourth-fastest time ever in the event.

Larkin kept the Americans close, third, with a 53.05; Larkin turned the race over with the Aussies in first, in 52.41. On the third leg, butterfly, Tom Shields put the Americans in first; Adrian held on to bring the Americans home to gold in 3:29.93.

Adrian's free split: 47.41.

The split for Australia's Cameron McEvoy, who was closing: 46.6.

— Dana Vollmer is back in training. She won the women’s 100 fly in London. Can she, now a new mom, make it all the way back to the top of the world stage?

— Missy Franklin? Ohmigod, she did not win every single thing she entered. What?!

Franklin did, for instance, come through, and in a big way, in that mixed 4x1 free relay, anchoring the team to victory and a world record.

As Franklin heads back home to Colorado, however, it’s clear that Ledecky is now the 200 free boss, so there’s that.

For another, Franklin was clearly not her best self here. She faded significantly on the last lap of Saturday’s 200 backstroke, a race she has owned for years. Summoned to swim the backstroke leg of the women's medley Sunday night, she managed 59.81, fifth; the Americans would end up fourth.

Franklin’s longtime coach, Todd Schmitz, told the Denver Post a few weeks ago that he has had to “rekindle” in her “the same kind of fire that I used to see.”

Franklin said Saturday she was “proud” of what she had done here, given the work she had put in over the past two months; she said she looked forward to seeing the results of a full year of going at it hard.

Plummer, meanwhile, has been chasing Rio since missing out on London 2012 by 12-hundredths of a second.

His ninth-place Monday in the 100 came while he was, literally, sick. “Have been battling a stomach bug, but I can't make any excuses,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “I have to find a way to be faster.”

On Sunday, in the 50 back, a non-Olympic event, Plummer finished eighth, of eight, in 24.95. Camille Lacourt of France won, in 24.23; Grevers took second, in 24.61.

Maybe, then, time for another quote that Plummer once cited, this one on his Facebook page, from “The Boys in the Boat,” the story of the University of Washington rowing crew that won gold at the 1936 Berlin Games:

"The trick would be to find which few of them had the potential for raw power, the nearly superhuman stamina, the indomitable willpower, and the intellectual capacity necessary to master the details of technique."

The deadline in this instance is already marked on swim calendars: the first day of the U.S. Trials in Omaha. It's Sunday, June 26, 2016.

 

Free Michael Phelps

This space believes in making things simple and easy. So here it is: Michael Phelps should swim at the 2015 world championships in Kazan, Russia. USA Swimming suspended Phelps for six months in the aftermath of his drunk-driving incident in Maryland last September. That suspension has run, and he will open his 2015 season by swimming this week at a meet in Mesa, Arizona. In addition to that suspension, Phelps and USA Swimming agreed — and “agreed” is putting a spin on it — that he would not be on the U.S. team in Kazan. Now the time has come to fix that.

For every reason you can come up with to keep Phelps off the Kazan team, there are better reasons to send him.

First and foremost, there is this:

The American story is, and forever will be, one of redemption. This is who we are. This is the classic, everlasting story of our country.

In the United States of America, we get not only a second chance, but a third, a fourth, a fifth and more.

If anyone has earned that chance, it’s Michael Phelps.

Phelps is one of the great sports heroes of our time, an imperfect human being — we all are — who has won 22 Olympic medals, 18 of them gold, inspiring literally millions of boys and girls and grown-ups, too.

About this there can be no debate.

Our funny face pic yesterday at #theboysandgirlsclub What a blast!

A photo posted by Michael Phelps (@m_phelps00) on

Disclaimer: I co-wrote Phelps’ 2008 best-selling book. In writing this column, I have not shared even one word with him.

To recap how we got here, and why there must be reconsideration — not just for Phelps but for USA Swimming and even the U.S. Olympic Committee — that Phelps go to Russia:

On Sept. 30, 2014, Phelps was stopped by Maryland police going 84 in a 45 mph zone. His blood-alcohol level registered 0.14.

This was Phelps’ second DUI offense in 10 years.

For legal purposes, the first DUI, when Phelps was a teenager, was completely immaterial during the second case. For the record, he did 18 months probation. USA Swimming took no action.

In 2009, a few months after going 8-for-8 at the Beijing Games, Phelps, then 23, was photographed with his face in a bong. The picture created a major international stir. USA Swimming suspended him for three months.

Then came the arrest last September. Phelps was arrested amid the media frenzy ignited by the cases involving the NFL players Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson and, to a lesser extent, the soccer star Hope Solo, each enveloped in a domestic violence incident.

To be clear, is Phelps super-fortunate no one got hurt? Or worse? Yes, a thousand times over.

Now: was Phelps involved in a domestic violence case? No.

Was it thus apples to apples? No.

Was it his incredibly poor judgment to get behind the wheel of a car, impaired, when the harsh media spotlight had turned on high-profile athletes? Yes.

Was there thus pressure on USA Swimming and the USOC, especially given the intensity of the focus on the Rice and Peterson matters, in particular, to bring the hammer down on Phelps? Absolutely.

Was Phelps in any sort of position, given that intensity, to argue at the time — even though he and everyone else involved knew that the best thing for him was to go to treatment, which was where he was, in fact, headed — about any of the elements of the six-month plus Kazan deal? Hardly.

Was there, as this space pointed out at the time, a rush to judgment? You bet.

When can it be said that a rush to judgment ever proves positive?

Now that time has run:

Rice and the Baltimore Ravens have settled his grievance for $1.588 million, and Rice is eligible to play again in the NFL.

Peterson is eligible for reinstatement on Wednesday.

The domestic violence charges against Solo were dismissed in January. A few days later, she was back in the news in connection with a drunken driving incident involving her husband, ex-NFL player Jerramy Stevens, that led US Soccer to suspend her for 30 days.

At the Algarve Cup in Portugal in March, a key tune-up for this summer’s women’s World Cup, who was that making the incredible late-game save to preserve her 81st international shutout in leading the United States over France, 2-0, for the title? For sure — Solo.

To be clear, one of the reasons to see Phelps swim in Kazan is what would likely happen in the pool. Reports from swim insiders say Phelps is hugely motivated — he is said to be practicing the way he did in 2007 and 2008 — and there is perhaps no sight in sports like Phelps roaring down the pool in the back half of his races.

There is also this: the U.S. team needs Phelps if it has any hopes of winning the 400 freestyle relay the way it did in Beijing in 2008. That’s the race he watched — from the stands — with dismay at the 2013 world championships in Barcelona. You only get so many chances to practice this relay before Rio in 2016.

Beyond that, there is this:

In a weird way, the September DUI arrest may have been the best thing that ever happened to Phelps. It got him to treatment. It forced him to look, and hard, at who he is and what he is doing.

In the months since leaving treatment, he has gotten engaged. He has been a model citizen. Everyone who has been in contact with him has remarked about how he has grown up.

In London, and that was before all this, Phelps was a veteran team leader at the 2012 Games. Wouldn’t you want Phelps 2.0, and this kind of hard-won life experience, on your team in Kazan?

Having reviewed the USA Swimming selection criteria, it is abundantly plain that it would indeed be a complex process — a number of dominoes would need to fall in just the right way — to get Phelps on the Kazan team. But, as always, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Now for some real-life politics, because there are plenty of intersecting currents to factor into the dynamic as well:

USA Swimming and FINA, the international governing body for swimming, are currently not — shall we say — on the best of terms. There are a variety of reasons why, but for this conversation it’s enough to leave it at this: things are business-like.

And to not have Phelps in Russia? FINA is not happy to begin with. Now you throw in the prospect that the best American swimmer ever would not be at its marquee event?

Everyone knows, meanwhile, that the USOC wants to put forward a Summer Games bid for 2024.

Not everyone knows, however, that John Leonard, who is an influential U.S. swim coach, has for months now been leading a largely behind-the-scenes campaign aimed at reforming FINA.

FINA has opted not to respond in public to the Leonard campaign.

The point of bringing up Leonard’s campaign here is not to debate its merits. It’s to put it in a different context.

The president of FINA, Julio Cesar Maglione of Uruguay, was just this past weekend elected interim president of the Pan-American Sports Organization.

Maglione is a key and dependable ally of International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach’s.

Maglione is 79. Elected FINA president in 2009, he was re-elected in 2013. Now there is serious talk that he wants a third term; to do so would require a rules change.

Leonard’s campaign is wondering, among other things, how this can be.

The answer: it’s all part of a complex geopolitical strategy involving interests beyond Maglione with close ties to the IOC president. This strategy might take all of a presumed third Maglione third term to play out. Or just part of it. In that scenario, which leadership at USA Swimming understands full well already, U.S. influence at FINA's top levels might well be further considerably diminished.

This is no small matter. For revenue purposes, swimming is now what's called a Tier "A" sport in the Olympic movement, along with gymnastics and track and field -- in large measure because of the import of Phelps.

Leonard is doing what he justifiably feels is in the right.

In the meantime, the Leonard campaign is not doing a 2024 U.S. Olympic bid any favors — see above, FINA not happy with USA Swimming to begin with.

Moving on:

Understand always that Vladimir Putin made the first call to Bach when Bach was elected IOC president. These Kazan swim championships are a key element in Putin’s strategy to make Russia a world sports destination — along with Sochi 2014 and soccer’s 2018 World Cup.

To reiterate: to not have the biggest star in swimming at the biggest show in swimming? How in the world, come voting time for the 2024 bid, is that going to help the United States? Don’t fool yourselves. Russia is a big deal in the Olympic sphere and people have long memories when it comes time to vote.

Moving on once more:

Katie Ledecky, Missy Franklin and Ryan Lochte are awesome swimmers. But without Phelps, who in the United States is likely to watch a swim world championships — from Kazan or anywhere — on television?

Answer: virtually no one.

Need evidence? Lochte is, truly, a great guy. But there's a reason his reality-TV show was quickly canceled.

If Phelps doesn’t swim in Kazan, it’s a simple matter to look at the calendar and see he would have to swim instead at the U.S. nationals in San Antonio. They’re Aug. 6-10. The swim schedule in Kazan runs Aug. 2-9. Why the two events run simultaneously is a long, and separate, story.

A San Antonio nationals would feature Phelps, Allison Schmitt, Natalie Coughlin and dozens of others — apologies — recognizable mostly to their coaches and parents.

Phelps has for more than a dozen years now said his goal is to grow the sport of swimming. How would limiting him to San Antonio accomplish any of that?

That’s not just a rhetorical question.

It’s way better all around for leadership at USA Swimming to take a deep breath, work out the complexities of the selection process, acknowledge the obvious and get the guy who virtually by himself since 2000 has elevated swimming into the top tier in the Olympic scene back where he belongs.

With the best in the world.

Ledecky makes beautiful music in 200 free

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Katie Ledecky took down Missy Franklin in the women’s 200 freestyle Thursday evening at the U.S. nationals in Irvine, California, and though both laughed and made all sweet about it because that’s how they are, and Franklin even danced on deck when the poolside announcer talked about the Backstreet Boys, this — when, years from now, they look back — may well be one of the Katie Ledecky signature moments. Ledecky touched in 1:55.16, a full 1.24 ahead of Franklin. It was the second-fastest time in the world this year and, for Ledecky, a personal best. Which ought to give everyone pause, because Ledecky just turned 17 in March and has so far concentrated on the 400 and above. She simply has not raced the 200 much. As she learns the race, she probably will get a lot, lot faster.

Missy Franklin, left, and Katie Ledecky on the medals stand after the 200 freestyle // photo Getty Images

The two of them are — at once — racers, teammates and friends, Ledecky headed for Stanford, Franklin already at Berkeley, the both of them expected mainstays for years to come not just on the U.S. team but on the American 4x200 relay.

That relay, in fact, is what Ledecky — and coach Bruce Gemmell — have said is the thing that drew her down to the 200 from the distance events she has come to dominate.

Then again, she was entered in Irvine in, among other events, the 100 free, too. She simply is becoming so good that she has to try.

Last year, at the world championships in Barcelona, after Ledecky was named the meet’s outstanding swimmer, she said Franklin should have had the honor.

This was their back-and-forth then:

“I am sooooooo proud of Katie. She was absolutely unbelievable. I think she has probably been my absolute favorite swimmer to watch ever." — Franklin

"Missy deserves it probably more than I do. Missy had an incredible week. We are all so proud of her. What she did this week, we were sitting there in awe." — Ledecky

This was them Thursday on the pool deck:

“You never know with Missy. It was a tough race. I just enjoyed being in the final.” — Ledecky

“It’s so special. Watching Katie in the 1500, the 800, it’s a treat for everyone. Being able to race her in the 200, it just makes you better.” — Franklin

“I watch her all the time. She’s amazing. It’s great to watch her here and learn from her.” — Franklin

This is how this sort of thing is really is.

Here’s how it is, too:

On Thursday night, Katie Ledecky slipped down into a distance that Missy Franklin owned last year and Ledecky was more than a full second better. So what does that mean for each going forward, and for the U.S. team, and for world swimming?

This was Franklin, of the five gold medals in London, the six golds at the 2013 worlds in Barcelona, including that 200 free.

Ledecky came to Irvine the winner of gold in London in the 800, when she was just 15. In Barcelona, at 16, she won the 400, 800 and 1500 and set two world records in the two distance events. She has since lowered both distance marks — both this past June at a low-key meet in Texas, both by more than two seconds.

On Wednesday, as the Irvine meet got started, Ledecky flirted with the world record and easily won the 800. Franklin, meanwhile, took the 100 free over Simone Manuel, another rising teen talent who, like Ledecky, is headed for Stanford.

In the 100 free prelims, Ledecky had finished 13th.

In Thursday morning’s 200 free prelims, Franklin put together an easy 1:57.83.

Ledecky, meanwhile, went 1:55.75. That was the morning’s fastest showing and, as well, the fourth-fastest time in the world in 2014.

Allison Schmitt, the London 2012 200 gold medalist who curiously failed to qualify for the Barcelona team, missed out, again. She finished in 1:59.5, good only for 11th place.

The 200 free was the first event on Thursday evening’s sun-dappled program. Ledecky drew Lane 4, Franklin Lane 5.

By 100 meters, Ledecky was in the lead.

At 150 meters, Ledecky was riding noticeably higher in the water than Franklin.

The final turn sealed the deal.

Their splits over the back half of the race — that is, the final 100 meters — are instructive:

Ledecky: 29:58, 28.94.

Franklin: 29.94, 29.72.

Franklin’s finishing time of 1:56.4, it must be said, was 10th-fastest of 2014. She swam an excellent race.

It must also be noted that Franklin went on about 75 minutes later Thursday to win the 200 backstroke, in 2:08.38, and that no one came within two seconds of her.

Ledecky’s work for the night, however, was over. She had well and thoroughly won. Perhaps her only disappointment — though there was none of this to be spoken off, at least out loud — is that she had not gone under 1:55. The world-best time this year is 1:55.04, from Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom.

“I wasn’t really worried about the time,” Ledecky said afterward. “I just wanted to get into a good race and swim the best race I could.”

She also said, “The best part about my race was my tempo. I think I did a really good job of increasing my tempo throughout my race and my arms didn’t really die, so I was happy with that.”

Earlier in her career — it seems almost ridiculous to say “earlier in her career” of someone who is 17 but the phraseology is lacking in the English language — Ledecky would go out, race hard, just go, go, go. Now she has speed, endurance and discipline, as she showed Wednesday when she backed off world-record pace about halfway through the 800.

She also, as she proved Thursday, can bring it in a range of events, from the 200 up through distance categories. And, as she showed Wednesday, she is getting better in the 100.

In winning last year’s 200 in Barcelona, Franklin broke 1:55, going 1:54.81. Schmitt’s American record is 1:53.61, set in London in 2012. The world record is 1:52.98, which Italy’s Federica Pellegrini set in Rome at the height of the plastic-suit craze at the 2009 world championships.

Before the meet, Gemmel said he can now tell how Ledecky is swimming just by listening “to the swims,” likening it to the way a concert pianist can hear great music.

“Sometimes during practice he says that doesn’t sound like fast swimming, or that sounds like fast swimming,” Ledecky said.

He said, “I think one of Katie’s biggest growth areas over the last year is she can swim the races multiple ways. I think up until a couple years ago she was most comfortable with and only swam it real hard, going out from the start, but based upon her swims last summer in Barcelona that for various reasons we chose to swim different ways, and for the swims down in Texas, I think that’s her biggest growth area, that she can now swim back half, front half, middle half, every other lap, however we choose to swim it.

“We’ve done that before.”

And now, everyone?

 

Katie Ledecky version 2014

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The wall-to-wall coverage of the soccer World Cup has tended to obscure what the American swimmer Katie Ledecky did at a low-key meet that concluded Sunday near Houston. It shouldn’t. It isn’t just that Ledecky set two world records in the 1500 and 800, the two women’s freestyle races that for decades featured records impervious to change. She won across the board — 1500, 800, 400, 200, 100. It has been more than 40 years since Australia’s Shane Gould held every women’s freestyle record, from the 100 up to the 1500. (The 50 didn't come until later.) That is borderline preposterous. Then again, so is what Ledecky did this weekend.

Katie Ledecky, right, with a fan at the Mesa Grand Prix earlier this year // photo Getty Images

Granted, many of America’s top swimmers were racing elsewhere, at the Grand Prix event in Santa Clara, California. Even so, her times in Texas were almost unbelievable.

If she didn’t get airtime on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” because it was being hogged up by the U.S. men’s soccer team’s 2-2 tie with Portugal, or even because golfer Michelle Wie won the women’s U.S. Open, you can bet that everyone in swim circles snapped to when they saw what Katie Ledecky did near Houston.

Because — as amazing as she was in 2012, when at 15 she won Olympic gold in the 800 free, or as dominating as she was in 2013, when she won four golds in Barcelona at the world championships amid two world records — the 2014 version of Katie Ledecky appears to be just as ruthlessly competitive but far more versatile.

When she is not swimming, Ledecky is, by all accounts, a delightful young woman. She is modest. She is a team player. She has announced she intends to attend Stanford when she finishes high school. She is still — let’s remember — only 17.

“She has unbelievable work ethics and work habits,” said Jon Urbanchek, the former University of Michigan coach who has for years been affiliated with the U.S. national team and worked with Ledecky in London in 2012, adding, “She was pushing the boys in practice a lot.”

When she is racing, however, she is a killer, and that is meant to be a high compliment. Simply, Ledecky goes out and means to break you by the force of her incredibly intense competitive will.

Afterward, she smiles, and sweetly.

Just like Missy Franklin.

The idea of the two of them — and Allison Schmitt — racing the 200 free is pretty unreal.

Schmitt is the London 2012 Olympic 200 free gold medalist. Franklin is the Barcelona 2013 world champion in the 200 free. Schmitt didn’t swim in Barcelona. Franklin and Ledecky together swam on the winning U.S. 4x200 freestyle relay team.

“She is unreal,” Franklin said at a news conference Thursday in Santa Clara.

Here is how unreal Ledecky is, starting with the 1500, which in swimming lingo is called the mile:

— Janet Evans swam the 1500 in 15:52.10, on March 26, 1988, at the USA spring nationals in Orlando, Florida. No one broke that record for nearly 20 years.

Finally, on June 17, 2007, Kate Ziegler did it, going 15:42.54, at a meet in Mission Viejo, California. That is not quite eight seconds.

At that meet, Ziegler had just come down to California from attitude training. She is what Urbanchek calls a “responder” — that is, someone whose body responds immediately to the effects of altitude training, designed to increase oxygen-carrying capacity.

“You train up there at altitude, you come down and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can breathe,’ “ Evans said. “It’s awesome. It’s amazing.”

In warmups, Ziegler recalled of that race, she was off. But when the gun went off, something clicked:

“It was as easy as a mile could be. Lap after lap, I felt so consistent, so strong. I didn’t know how fast I was going. I saw people going alongside and cheering me along. I didn’t have that many teammates there so I knew something must be going on — I saw so many people cheering!”

Last summer in Barcelona, Ledecky lowered the mile mark almost six seconds, to 15:36.53.

In Texas this weekend, Ledecky, too, had just come down from altitude. She, too, is a “responder.”

In the mile, she went 15:34.23 — lowering the record by two and a half seconds.

As an indicator of how good Ledecky’s performance is, Lotte Friis of Denmark, who is maybe one of two or three women in the world right now who might be able to give Ledecky a race in the mile, swam the same event Thursday in Santa Clara. Friis won convincingly, by 10 seconds. Friis’ time: 16:00.35.

Math: Ledecky’s time is better by 26 seconds. 26 seconds!

— It was Aug. 20, 1989, when Evans, again, set the world record in the 800 free, 8:16.22, swimming in Tokyo at the Pan Pacific championships.

It took 19 years until someone broke that record — Rebecca Adlington of Great Britain, on Aug. 16, 2008, at the Beijing Games, going 8:14.10.

In Barcelona last year, Ledecky went 8:13.86.

In Texas on Sunday, Ledecky went 8:11 flat. Again, she took more than two seconds off her own record.

In Santa Clara, Cierra Runge of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, swimming Sunday, won the 800 free in a lifetime-best 8:26.71.

Math: Ledecky’s time is 15 seconds-plus better.

At that Texas meet, beyond the two world records, Ledecky also won three other freestyle races, the 400, in the fastest time so far this year in the world; the 200, in a time a tenth away from what she did at the 2013 world championships; and the 100, just off her season- and personal-best.

“I think she is in a really sweet spot,” Evans said. “There are a lot of eyes on Michael, a lot of eyes on Missy,” referring to Phelps and Franklin. “As well as she did in London,” meaning Ledecky, “she’s still going to college. There’s not a lot of adulation on her yet. There’s not a lot of pressure. That’s how I felt. Not a lot of pressure. It’s all fun. You just go.”

One of Urbanchek’s former Michigan swimmers, Bruce Gemmel, is now Ledecky’s coach, and Urbanchek said, “She is like Janet. She has the range across the continuum — except for maybe the 50. She is extremely talented. She is extremely hard-working. She is a racer, an attacker. And she is learning to control her races.”

Ledecky’s London 800 is already the stuff of swim legend — she went out super-fast, so fast that almost no one thought she could hold on. Of course she did.

The Barcelona 1500 — she and Friis dueled throughout the race until Ledecky dropped the hammer late — proved that Ledecky had developed great closing speed. Now, Ziegler said, “The more speed she develops — and she has speed — she also has finishing endurance and she has guts. That is an incredible, unstoppable combination. I wouldn’t begin to predict what we will see from her. She keeps raising that bar. I would not set a limit on her.

“Whatever she she sets her sights on is within her realm,” Ziegler said, adding, “It’s very exciting.”

 

Phelps is back, and why not

A great many people are desperately afraid in this life of failure. Being afraid does only one thing. It holds you back.

Michael Phelps is not, has never been, afraid of failure. He has the courage to dream big dreams -- dreams without limits, without worries about what might happen if they don't come true. 

Michael Phelps in the pool Wednesday in Mesa, Arizona // photo Getty Images

Phelps is indisputably the greatest swimmer of all time. There can be no argument. As he steps on the blocks Thursday at the Mesa Grand Prix, having said at the London 2012 Olympics that he was done swimming competitively but now having changed his mind, the natural question is, why, and the one that goes with it for so many is, but isn’t he afraid of damaging his reputation?

The second one first: no.

For Michael Phelps, this is absolutely opportunity, and nothing but.

This is, in plain speech, what sets greatness apart.

Maybe Phelps won’t win every race between now and the close of the 2016 Rio Games.

Strike that. It’s guaranteed that he won’t, starting with the series this weekend in Arizona.

So what?

It does not matter.

For Phelps, what matters is the opportunity to test himself, to see how good he can be.

As he said Wednesday at a news conference, “I’m doing this for me," adding a moment later, "I am looking forward to wherever this road takes me."

Phelps has never — again, never ever never — said, “I want to win x medals.”

He has always said his goals are to grow the sport of swimming and to be the very best he can be.

His impact is broad and deep:

-- The caliber of athletes in the sport is so much better. Guys coming into college are now swimming the 200 freestyle roughly two seconds faster than they did even just a few years ago. Why? Because they watched Phelps swim, whether in 2004 in Athens or 2008 in Beijing, and said to their parents, that guy is awesome and I want to be like that.

-- The U.S. team has its leader back. As great as Missy Franklin or Katie Ledecky are, and they are, and as fantastic an athlete as Ryan Lochte is, and he is, Phelps is incomparable. He makes everyone better.

Why?

This is a guy who loves to race. He loves to win. He hates to lose.

So why, after proving without a shadow of a doubt — 22 Olympic medals, 18 of them gold — is he back once more to see how good he can be?

Wrong question.

It’s not why,

It’s why not?

Phelps is 28. He turns 29 in July.

When he was in his early teens, just getting started with his coach and mentor Bob Bowman, Phelps would do what Bowman told him to do because, well, Bowman told him to do it. In Athens in 2004, when he won eight medals, six gold, same. In 2008 in Beijing, when they hatched the plan that led to the eight-for-eight gold, same.

By the 2011 world championships in Shanghai, that didn’t work so much anymore. Phelps had already achieved the unthinkable in Beijing; in Shanghai, he acknowledged he needed to find motivation.

In short, that’s what Phelps said by the end of the Games in London; he didn’t have the same motivation.

Though elemental, this is essential to understand: swimming is hard work, arguably the hardest Olympic sport there is, because it is often decided by hundredths of a second and it reveals, truly reveals, whether you have put in the work. That’s what Phelps learned in Shanghai. He hadn’t done the work and at that meet Lochte owned him.

By London, Phelps had done the work in every race but -- as the results emphatically showed -- the 400 individual medley. Indeed, that race proves the point. Phelps swam it because he wanted the test, caring not at all about the prospect of "failure," if fourth place at the Olympics is "failure." The instant know-it-all critics who started braying that Phelps might be done? It was his first final of the Games and, as he said immediately afterward, "It was just a crappy race." He would go on to win six medals.

Michael Phelps at the 2012 London Olympics // photo Getty Images

After London? Time to take time off.

Now?

The intense competitive drive that makes Phelps who he is has not gone away. It never did. As if. Phelps has a lot of guys who want to hang out with him. That doesn’t fill him up. That might be good for a weekend, or a week.

Golf? For fun — sure. As an everyday thing? Come on.

Let’s get one thing perfectly straight, and for all time: Phelps is super-smart and, for that matter, multitasks as well as any CEO. He is not, nearing 29, going to go to college; when he was training in Michigan before the 2008 Games, he was not working toward a four-year degree (though he is a big Maize and Blue fan).

Swimming, from the time he was little, not only provided Phelps with structure. Fundamentally, it gave him purpose.

Again —for Phelps, swimming was the ultimate provider of structure in his world. Then and now, it provides him a base of friends. Too, it offers a coach and staff with guidance.

The realization Phelps doubtlessly has arrived at now, in 2014, is that he isn’t coming to Bowman and the North Baltimore Aquatic Club because he has to.

He wants to.

That makes all the difference.

Phelps said Wednesday he weighed 187 pounds in 2012 in London. Afterward, he allowed himself to get to 225. Now he's at 194.

Bowman has assembled at the club a world-class roster that includes the likes of French sprinter Yannick Agnel; American sprinter Conor Dwyer; Tunisian long-distance ace Ous Mellouli; and more.

If you know Phelps, however, you know that for him now training has to be more fun than less. And for him the person who most often makes training fun is Allison Schmitt, who is, among other things, the London 2012 women’s 200-meter gold medalist.

Schmitt, who moved to Baltimore last year after finishing up at the University of Georgia, is making something of a comeback herself. She had a crummy nationals and — to everyone’s shock — missed making the U.S. team that swam at the 2013 world championships in Barcelona.

Phelps and Schmitt have always had something of a brother-sister relationship. They make each other laugh. He’s good for her. She’s good for him.

"I can't say it enough," he said Wednesday. "I am having fun."

As for those 2013 worlds — it was there, in Barcelona, that it became evident to everyone who knows swimming that Phelps would be back.

The only question was when.

The U.S. men’s 4x100 freestyle relay team lost to the French — with Agnel. Having Phelps sure would have helped. He was in the stands that day, texting Bowman, the U.S. men’s 2013 coach, critiques of the race. Phelps takes enormous pride in team and country, and he wants the American men to own that relay.

Phelps also surely would have noticed that Chad le Clos of South Africa won the 100-meter butterfly in 51.08 seconds, the 200 fly in 1:54.32. When he has put in the work, Phelps swims faster than those times.

Le Clos isn’t swimming in Arizona — though there are, in total, 27 Olympic medalists from seven countries who between them have 97 medals, 51 gold, registered to swim in Mesa.

Lochte — and it must be acknowledged he is an extraordinary talent, with 11 Olympic medals, five gold — is on the start lists.

Giving credit where it is due, Lochte did his thing in the 400 IM in London. Phelps might well be done— as the Mesa Grand Prix proves, never say never — with that event. That said, both guys have traditionally duked it out in the 200 IM and if this weekend and for the foreseeable future Phelps swims even shorter events, so be it. He said Wednesday he would be scratching the 100 free in Mesa but would be swimming the 100 fly -- hardly a surprise.

But Phelps knows one other thing, too, and Lochte knows it as well, looking ahead — way ahead — to Rio:

At the Olympic Games, the 200 IM traditionally comes just minutes, literally minutes, after the 200 backstroke. Lochte swims the 200 back. Phelps does not. The 200 back is a killer. It leaves the legs feeling like wood. It is a testament to Lochte’s will that he even tries the double.

Always, always, always remember this about Michael Phelps:

He loves to race. He loves to win. He hates to lose.

 

BCN 2013: life after Phelps

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BARCELONA -- The world after Michael Phelps gets underway here shortly in sun-splashed Spain, or at least that part that everyone outside serious swim geeks would be inclined to pay attention to, the 2013 swimming world championships, and from all over the globe they sought Friday both to downplay expectations while asserting that quite naturally the point in racing is to win. "It's kind of a down year but everyone is getting ready to race," American Matt Grevers, the London Games 100 meters backstroke gold medalist, said, summing it up perfectly in just one short sentence.

This classic wanting-to-have-it-both-ways is the result of several factors:

It's the year after the Olympic year. Some people are in tip-top shape and others, well, maybe not so much. The thing about swimming is it has no pity. It reveals who has put in the work.

That's what Phelps understood during and after the world championships in Shanghai in 2011, and -- candidly -- what these championships are likely to show, indeed what the build-up to this meet already has made plain. American Allison Schmitt, who won five medals last summer in London, including gold in the 200 freestyle, her signature event, didn't make the 2013 team.

"She hasn't trained very much," her coach, Bob Bowman -- who is of course Phelps' longtime mentor as well and is the U.S. men's coach here -- told reporters at the time. He also tweeted a quote from the Chinese master Lao Tzu, "I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures."

As these Barcelona championships unfold, with the U.S. team's 31 medals from London now just numbers in the history books, with Russian sprinter Vlad Morozov throwing down times like 47.62 in the 100 free just a couple weeks ago at the University Games -- simplicity, patience and compassion might be the watchwords for many.

Then again, the U.S. might rise up as it usually does.

The 2013 U.S. world team is made up of veterans such as Ryan Lochte, Nathan Adrian, Natalie Coughlin and Dana Vollmer, breakout stars such as Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky and a whole bunch of newcomers -- eight national team rookies on the 51-person roster.

Phelps -- he of the 22 Olympic medals, 18 gold -- is of course playing golf. He has said many times that he is doing so contentedly.

That Phelps is not churning down Lane 4 in the final 50 meters does not mean, as France's Fred Bousquet rightly put it Friday, that there aren't any more stars in the worldwide swim constellation. Phelps always said his primary goal was to grow the sport and, as the London Games underscored, his brilliance  has brought forth swimmers from all over the world -- South Africa's Chad le Clos, Lithuania's Ruta Meilutyte and others.

"We should not be different now," Bousquet said. "Just chasing the dream like every other swimmer."

Even so, the world championships in the year following an Olympics is always something of an odd affair. Everyone is acutely aware that the dream -- the real dream -- is three long years away.

"We want to peak in 2016, not 2013," Michael Scott, the Australian team's director of high performance, said at that team's news conference following the Americans -- the Aussies trying to effect a wholesale change in what an independent review called a "toxic" team culture following just 10 medals won in London, only one gold.

The new Aussie way, Scott said, is "by being professional in and out of the pool and doing that with team unity and enjoyment," the theory being medals will follow.

Ryan Lochte, meanwhile, sounded a lot like Michael Phelps circa 2011 -- Lochte also emphasizing that his main goal was Rio in 2016, not Barcelona 2013. "I knew I had to get back in the water eventually," Lochte said, meaning that if he was going to swim here he had to resume training after his reality-TV show and other out-of-the-pool adventures.

"Joan Rivers -- she's awesome. She's a character. Being on her show, it was a lot of fun. Before the show, they told me to wear a swimsuit and I was, like, all right. I put it on under my actual business suit. During the show, she told me to take it off and -- I did. I mean, what can I say? It was a lot of fun.

"You never know what to expect with her. One time I was sitting on a chair talking to her, next thing I knew I was in a fountain still talking to her. It was a lot of fun."

To be fair to Lochte, he didn't just volunteer this story. He was asked about hanging out with Joan Rivers. Then again, before this year, Lochte acknowledged, he had been a beast in training. This year, though, he said, "I took a long break. I don't know if it's going to help me," adding, "My body needed to re-charge. Now I am back in the water and I am excited to race."

Phelps said almost the same thing at the world championships in Shanghai in 2011 before Lochte drilled him in the 200 individual medley, setting a world record, 1:54 flat, Phelps finishing 16-hundredths of a second back.

That loss spurred Phelps to get back in the pool for hard training. In London, Phelps won the 200 IM, in 1:54.27; Lochte took silver, in 1:54.9.

"I mean, Phelps -- there is no doubt about it, he is going to go down in history as the best swimmer ever," Lochte said. "I was just happy I was part of it. He is the hardest racer I ever had to go up against."

Bowman, asked for probably the jillionth time whether Phelps is coming back, offered his practiced reply: "Well, my answer to that is always -- when I see it, I will believe it, and I have had no indication to this point … that's where I will leave that one."

Which is where this meet gets going. Racing starts Sunday, with the first big event the men's 4x100 freestyle relay.

Michael Scott, the Aussie team leader, was asked the key to the relay. In the way that Grevers succinctly summed up the meet, so did Scott: "Swim fast."

 

USA Swimming's night to celebrate

NEW YORK -- Bob Bowman, Michael Phelps' coach, came first. At a filled-to-the-max ballroom here at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Times Square, Bowman won USA Swimming's "coach of the year" award at its annual gala, called the "Golden Goggles," and when he took to the stage he had this to say: "Michael, it has been a privilege to be your coach. It has been even better to be your friend."

A few moments later came Phelps, introduced by the strange-but-awesome pairing of Donald Trump and Gary Hall Jr., the former sprint champion -- on a night when the invite said, "Black Tie" -- wearing, indeed, a funky black-and-white tie draped over a black T-shirt that blared out in pink letters, "Barbie," the ensemble dressed up with a black jacket.

Phelps, Trump allowed, was "a friend of mine." He riffed a little bit more, "You think he's going to win?

Of course he was going to win for "male athlete of the year," and when Phelps got to the stage, he said, referring to London 2012, his fourth Games, "This Olympics was the best Olympics I have ever been a part of."

No one in the American Olympic scene -- arguably not even the U.S. Olympic Committee -- puts on a show like USA Swimming. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was also among the celebrity presenters. The comic Jim Gaffigan came out for a 20-minute riff that only marginally touched on swimming but did include references to Phelps and Subway sandwiches as well as Gaffigan's much-applauded routine on Hot Pockets, the microwaveable turnover.

Out in the hall there was a silent auction with all manner of stuff for sale -- including a framed picture, signed by both Phelps and Serbia's Milorad Cavic, of the 2008 Beijing 100-meter butterfly, which Phelps famously won by one-hundredth of a second.

It's not simply that American swimmers are so good.

It's that the culture of the U.S. swim team creates success.

That is what was fully and richly on display Monday night at the Marriott Marquis ballroom: a program that dares to dream big and that celebrates the role everyone plays in achieving those dreams, from support staff to coaches to athletes.

Indeed, when the night began with introductions across the stage, it wasn't the athletes or the coaches who came first. It was the support staff. And they got just as loud a round of applause from those on hand.

There are other well-run national governing bodies -- the ski and snowboard team, for instance, which claimed 21 of the world-best 37 medals the U.S. team won in Vancouver in 2010.

That said, virtually every other U.S. Olympic federation could learn a little something, or maybe a lot, from how the swim team gets things done. In London, the swim team won 31 medals -- 16 gold, nine silver, six bronze.

As good as the U.S. track team was -- it won 29 medals -- the numbers don't lie. The No. 1 performance in London came in the water.

It was observed by NBC's Bob Costas, the night's emcee, that if the American swim team had been a stand-alone country it would have finished ninth in the overall medals table -- and fifth in the gold-medal count.

When the 49 athletes on the London 2012 team were introduced, two by two, they showed just how much they genuinely liked each other -- the fun that was so vividly on display in the "Call Me Maybe" video they had produced before the Games, which became a viral internet sensation.

Ricky Berens and Elizabeth Beisel didn't just shake hands when they met at center stage; they executed a chest-bump. Missy Franklin did a twirl, courtesy of Jimmy Feigin. Cullen Jones and Kara Lynn Joyce struck "007" poses.

Time and again, the winners Monday took time to say thank you to their families, coaches, staff and teammates.

"It's just -- just amazing to be here," said Katie Ledecky, the Maryland high school sensation who took home two awards, "breakout performer" and "female race of the year," for her dominating 800 freestyle victory in London. She said of the London Games, "I just had a blast … I got to be inspired by all of you."

Nathan Adrian, the "male race of the year winner" for his one-hundredth of a second victory in the 100-meter freestyle, said, "One last note. Thank you to my mom. I know you're watching online. I love you."

"I've never been on a team that was a close as this one," Dana Vollmer, the 100 fly winner who swam in the world record-breaking, gold medal-winning 4 x 100 women's medley relay, along with Franklin, Rebecca Soni and Allison Schmitt, said.

Of the relay team, she said, "We were called the 'Smiley Club.' "

Echoed Franklin, "My teammates are the best people you would ever meet in your entire life." She also said, "With Thanksgiving coming up, I realized I don't have a single thing in my life not to be thankful for."

Phelps provided the valedictory. He was up for "male athlete of the year" against Ryan Lochte (five medals, two gold), Adrian (three medals, two gold) and Matt Grevers (three medals, two gold).

Phelps followed up his eight-for-eight in Beijing with six medals in London, four gold. He became the first male swimmer to execute the Olympic three-peat, and he did it in not just one event but two, the 200 IM and the 100 fly. His 22 Olympic medals stand as the most-ever. Eighteen of those 22 are gold.

Trump, ever the sage, opined, "No athlete has ever come close," a reference to the arc of Phelps' dominating career, adding, "I don't think they ever will."

All of that is why Phelps, who has repeatedly announced that London marked his last Games as a competitive swimmer, had to be the slam-dunk winner. And if it felt Monday like USA Swimming was maybe -- if reluctantly -- turning the page from the Phelps years, there was that, too.

In London, Phelps embraced his role as veteran team leader. He showed anew Monday how much that meant to him.

The others in the "male athlete" category? "We were all in the same apartment in the [Olympic] village," Phelps said, making it clear that while they might sometimes be rivals in the pool, they were, beyond that, teammates, now and forever.

And, he said, as for that "Call Me Maybe" video: "At first I didn't want to do it. And now I'm really glad I did it because," like the swim team's Olympic year and the celebration Monday of that season, "it turned out to be something really special."

Janet Evans: no compromise, no limits, all courage

OMAHA -- Janet Evans came out of the water after swimming her preliminary heat in the 400 meters and said, with a big smile, albeit perhaps a little ruefully, "Janet just got 80th with a 4:21!" This was after the sixth heat of 12. Janet, who had just finished seventh in her bunch of nine, had no idea what place she would ultimately finish. All she knew at that instant was that she was for sure not going to make the U.S. Olympic Team in the 400 and yet the crowd was cheering for her like crazy.

It took about a half-hour for the six remaining heats to finish. When they were all done, Janet Evans, 40 years young, mother of two, an inspiration to swimmers, athletes of all sorts, moms, dads, everyone, had finished in exactly 80th place -- out of 113 -- with a time of 4:21.49.

Go figure.

If you were expecting Janet to make the U.S. team for the London 2012 Olympics, either in the 400 or in the 800, which she'll swim later in the week, you're likely to be disappointed.

The thing is, that's not her drop-dead expectation.

"I realized a long time ago I didn't think I was going to get to the Olympics," she said, relaxing after the 400 swim with a small group of reporters who have known her a long time.

This was always way more about the journey than the destination.

This from a woman who has five Olympic medals -- four gold and one silver, and is widely considered the greatest female long-distance swimmer of all time.

"The end goal was to be here," she said, meaning the Trials, adding a moment later, "That's the first time in my life, for me, I have ever been at that point. Because it has always been, like, you make it to the Trials, you make it to the Olympics, you win a gold medal, you take two weeks off and you start all over again. It was a very different concept …"

This was always about not accepting compromise or limits.

A year or so ago, Janet had a so-so swim at a meet. Her coach, Mark Schubert, asked if she wanted to keep going. The choice, he said, was all hers. She said, I am not a quitter.

Janet Evans' children are 5 and 2. That's a full-time job. She has another full-time job, as a motivational speaker. Swimming became a third full-time job.

Yet she said Tuesday, "I think for me the hardest part was finding the courage. Do you know what I mean?"

A moment or two later she explained: "I could have stayed home … the hardest part was the courage to actually put myself on the line and put myself in front of people that could criticize you if they wanted to, or not."

Some people, let's face it, will not -- and will never -- understand what Janet did here Tuesday. For them, it's make the Olympic team or bust.

She gets that.

"I think the people who get it will get it and the people who don't get it won't get it. Not everyone gets my silver medal from Barcelona," in 1992 in the 400, "which I think was one of my greatest victories, because it taught me so much, right?"

Allison Schmitt, who is coached by Bob Bowman -- Michael Phelps' coach, too -- finished first in Tuesday's prelims, in 4:05.60, almost 16 seconds faster than Janet's time.

"It is what it is," Janet said.

Later in the evening, Allison won the 400 final, in 4:02.84. Chloe Sutton took second, in 4:04.18.

Kylie Stewart raced in the same heat that Janet Evans did Tuesday morning. Kylie Stewart is 16. That's way closer in age to Janet's daughter, Syd, than to Janet. Janet laughed about that.

There was a lot of sweet, appreciative laughter from Janet here Tuesday.

She said, "I got a text from two of my best friends this morning. They're like, OK, I hope you go 4:02." Janet's best is 4:03.85, which she swam when was 17, at the Olympics in Seoul, in September, 1988. "I'm like, OK, are you kidding me? You're my best friends! Hello!"

Janet said she intended to re-group for the 800 prelims, on Saturday. Another friend e-mailed her husband, Billy Willson, to say, "Can Janet drop 25 seconds in her 800?" For the uninitiated, that's improbable if not impossible.

She laughed some more.

Janet said, "I'm certainly disappointed with my time. But I"m not going to let it taint the experience," adding, "I would love to have gone faster. But at the end of the day, is it defining?"

That's a rhetorical question, of course.

But here's the answer: Absolutely not.