OMAHA — The nightly light shows, so elaborate that fans experience the sensation of being trapped in a giant crystal raindrop chandelier, are part of Michael Phelps’s legacy.
With a record 28 Olympic medals, including 23 golds, Phelps transformed the U.S. Olympic swimming trials from a quadrennial family reunion into a spectacle that he described Monday as “semi-overwhelming.”
Phelps, 35, was a fixture at these trials for so long that seven of the eight women’s finalists in the 100-meter butterfly on Monday night weren’t born the last time he attended the meet as a spectator, in 1996.
To frame Phelps’s reign further, he has held the world record in the 400-meter individual medley for four months longer than the women’s 100 butterfly winner, the 18-year-old trials rookie Torri Huske, has been alive.
Five years into retirement, Phelps has exchanged isolation for outreach, sprinkling instruction and advice like the pope blessing his flock with holy water. As a mentor, he has found a way to pull this U.S. team along in his wake without getting wet.
Inside the CHI Health Center Arena on Tuesday, Phelps’s influence could be seen in the long strokes and high hips that Luca Urlando maintained on the final 50 meters of his preliminary swim in the 200-meter butterfly. Urlando, a 19-year-old from Sacramento, caught Phelps’s attention when he broke his 17-18 national age-group record in the event. That was two years ago. Phelps since has reached out with technical and tactical tips that Urlando used to advance to the semifinals.
On Monday, Michael Andrew, who has gobbled up Phelps’s national age-group records like Pac Man, won the 100-meter breaststroke to qualify for his first Olympic team. Andrew was a youth soccer player, more interested in goalkeeping than gold medals, when he posed for a photograph with Phelps at a swim clinic in Atlanta as a bashful 5-year-old. He turned professional at 14, supplanting Phelps by one year as the youngest male swimmer to forsake his amateur status.
Phelps keeps in touch with Andrew, 22, who said, “It’s cool that he’s been intentional with reaching out to me and supporting me and encouraging where I’m at.”
He added: “It’s pretty surreal that the greatest of all time is watching my career. It’s not something I ever expected, but I’m super grateful.”
Phelps’s influence on these trials was palpable from the start when, in the first event, Chase Kalisz shook off a two-year slump to win the men’s 400 individual medley. Kalisz, 27, is like a little brother to Phelps, who has known him since he was 6.
They trained together for nearly a decade, first in Maryland and later in Arizona. When Kalisz was slowed by a shoulder injury in 2019 and stopped by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Phelps was in his ear, regularly, with advice and observations that he never bothered to sugarcoat.
“Michael is very supportive of everything I do,” Kalisz said Sunday after his victory. He added that Phelps doesn’t hesitate to give him a kick in the posterior “if I need it, and sometimes I certainly need it.”
Phelps challenged Kalisz to be more meticulous in his approach to training, he said. He challenged him to act like a true professional in the water and the weight room every day and not only when the spirit moved him.
When the Games were postponed for a year, it gave Kalisz the opportunity to reboot his career, and from their talks Phelps intuited that Kalisz was back on track. He texted Kalisz that he would be watching the I.M. final from the stands, so Kalisz wasn’t the least surprised when Phelps, wearing a red face covering, slipped past security guards and was there to embrace Kalisz when he climbed out of the pool after out-touching his Georgia Aquatics training partner Jay Litherland.
The women’s 400 I.M. final on the first night featured another of Phelps’s mentees, Hali Flickinger, who didn’t need any of the tough love he doled out to Kalisz. She was her own worst adversary, she admitted, sabotaging her success with negative self-talk. Flickinger moved to Tempe, Ariz., to train with Phelps’s longtime coach, Bob Bowman, after the 2019 World Championships. She had earned a silver medal in the 200 butterfly that hung like a wooden nickel around her neck because of the way she lost the gold, by swimming a panicky race and getting passed in the final meters by Hungary’s Boglarka Kapas.
Flickinger stayed with Phelps, his wife, Nicole, and their three small sons until her husband joined her from Georgia. Many afternoons after practice, she would keep Phelps company in the kitchen as he was preparing dinner and talk about his racing mind-set.
“When I got to Arizona, there was a lot that I needed to figure out mentally,” Flickinger said.
One conversation stuck in her head. She asked Phelps what he thought about when he stepped on the blocks. He told her he lived for the races because they were the reward for all his hard work. The races were the most fun he had in swimming and the bigger the stage, the greater his enjoyment. His embrace of the moment, he said, sprang from his excitement to cash out all the work he had banked.
His response flipped a switch in Flickinger’s mind. She remembered thinking her mind-set was the exact opposite. “I was scared of races,” she said. “It had just been years of me thinking the wrong way and being worried about things I can’t control.”
As 2019 turned to 2020, Flickinger continued to have conversations with Phelps about process and positivity. At the same time, Phelps was hearing from Bowman about Flickinger’s capacity for work. She did butterfly sets and punishing I.M. workouts that boggled his mind. When he told her that he couldn’t conceive of some of the things she was managing to do in practice, Flickinger was incredulous.
“I’d walk away from those sets a lot of times disappointed, not realizing what I’d done,” said Flickinger, who gained confidence by seeing herself as a performer through the eyes of her sport’s greatest champion.
The pandemic put an end to their face-to-face conversations, but she continued to communicate with Phelps by text and telephone. “I don’t think he realizes how much I learn from him,” she said.
On Sunday, Flickinger, 26, found herself in a familiar position. In the final of the women’s 400 I.M., she was in the lead after the backstroke, two seconds clear of Emma Weyant and five seconds ahead of the favorite, Melanie Margalis. After the third leg of breaststroke, her lead over Margalis had all but disappeared and she was clinging to a one-second advantage over Weyant.
Margalis passed Flickinger on the first lap of the freestyle and Weyant passed her on the last lap. “The way I used to think before, I would have shut down after Melanie passed me,” Flickinger said. But with Phelps’s voice in her head, she cashed out all the hard work she had banked. She caught Margalis and out-touched her by .12-second to finish second to Weyant, virtually cinching her Olympic berth. When she arrived in the warm-down area, Phelps was waiting to give her a hug.
Flickinger will swim the preliminaries of the 200 butterfly Wednesday. She can’t believe she was saying this but she’s really, really excited to get up on the blocks and race. In the stands, Phelps will be watching again. He has a time in mind that he thinks she’ll hit. If he’s right, Flickinger’s smile will be as wide as his own was when he said, “She’s somebody that’s super talented and is nowhere near her potential.”
After spending half his life focused on maximizing his potential, Phelps is enjoying his new purpose: helping the next generation of swimmers maximize theirs.
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