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The Life Cycle of the Olympic Swimmer

Phelps, Lochte, and a visit to the trials in Omaha

Ariana Kukors broke the world record in the 200-meter individual medley in 2009 with a 2:06.15 mark that no one has beaten since. She has won seven swimming medals in major international competitions. And yet at the U.S. Olympic team trials this past week in Omaha, she was such a puddle of nerves that in the hours leading up to her race, her younger sister had to lie with her in bed, rubbing her back and trying to calm her down. On Wednesday night, Kukors said, “she fell asleep holding my hand.”

The next day, Kukors finished second in that 200 IM, stamping her ticket for London. When she got out of the pool, she ran over to her sister and mom, and the three of them dissolved into a sobbing, heaving group hug. You could see the family resemblance in their twisted-up faces.

“A lot of people,” she explained a few minutes later as she headed to the practice pool to swim some warm-down laps, “say this is the most nerve-racking meet in the world.”

To the fans who packed Omaha’s CenturyLink Center every evening, though, the U.S. trials were described in a far more marketable fashion. “Where champions are tested and Olympians are made!” the public-address announcer let’s-get-ready-to-rumbled each night. “Right here in Omaha!”

If Kukors was one of the Olympians being made — a happy upswing from her experience at the trials four years earlier, when she missed making Team USA by eight-hundredths of a second — then Natalie Coughlin (the one who beat her by those eight hundreths) was the champion being tested. The 11-time medal winner had failed this time around to qualify in her strongest individual events, and had one last chance on Saturday night to make a freestyle relay squad.

“This meet is kind of horrible,” Coughlin said on Friday. “It’s super-exciting for the people who are making the team, but there’s just so much stress.”

Coughlin managed to become one of those people, eking out a spot by finishing sixth in the 100 free. But her trip to the Olympics this time around will be vastly different than it’s been in the past. She’ll watch mostly from up in the stands, not down on the pool deck. She’s no longer there as the favorite, or the contender; instead she’ll be the mentor, the cheerleader, the unofficial wise veteran coach. Such is the life cycle for Olympians, a perversion of the Caesarian veni, vidi, vici progression. In this world you come, you conquer — and then you see.

The truth is, though, that the more unpleasant a meet is for its participants, the more exciting it is to the fans. Those heartbreaking razor-thin lines between win and lose? Hey, close finishes are the best! An upstart unseating the favorite? We love a good underdog tale! Two of the best swimmers in the world battling so hard they actually slow each other down? Rivalries are the foundation of sports!

We’re talking, of course, about the world’s most famous aquatic archenemies: Michael Phelps and the man who is, in the words of a recent SportsCenter segment, “TRAINING TO BEAT MICHAEL PHELPS.” That would be Ryan Lochte, the charismatic, crinkly-eyed 27-year-old whose footwear is as flashy as his fighting words.

This week he debuted a pair of American-flag high-tops meant to resemble the winged feet of Greek gods. They paired nicely with some of his recent brash comments. “This is my time,” he’s been saying for months. He told ESPN The Magazine that beating Phelps at the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai “gave me a motivation, an edge … once I beat someone, they won’t beat me again.” He told Men’s Health that “The World Championships were just an appetizer of what I’m capable of doing.”

He backed up the talk by edging out his rival in the 400-meter individual medley on the first night of the trials. Phelps had once dominated the event — between 2003 and 2008, he beat his own world records seven different times — but it has more recently belonged to Lochte, who now holds the record for the 200-meter IM.

But if Phelps had concerns that he, who is entering his fourth and final Olympics, had lost his edge, or that Lochte was “the new face of U.S. swimming,” he loudly shushed them with his performance over the rest of the week. He won the 200-meter butterfly and beat Lochte head-to-head to win the 100-meter fly, 200-meter freestyle, and 200-meter IM. When it was all over, Phelps had qualified for the same eight events in which he won gold in 2008. (Yesterday he pulled out of one of them, the 200 free, on the advice of his coach, Bob Bowman.)

After the 200 free, which Phelps won by five-hundredths of a second over Lochte on Wednesday, he mixed his animal metaphors in describing what had gone down. He called it a “dogfight” — with the two competitors “kind of playing cat-and-mouse.” It had been a thrilling race, one of the best of the week. (I even randomly got a call from my dad about it.) But no one was thrilled by the actual times, which were markedly slower than what both swimmers are capable of. If they swam those times in London, Phelps said, they wouldn’t sniff the podium. Like a no-nonsense parent, Bowman took the opportunity to publicly scold both swimmers (though he doesn’t coach Lochte) during one press conference. “When Michael and Ryan are so focused on racing each other, they do stuff like tonight and don’t take it out fast,” he explained.

Fast is a relative concept. Watching the races, I knew these elite athletes were fast, but they didn’t always look it. Maybe it was because they were all moving at the same blazing speed, like cars on the Autobahn, or because they were so smooth and efficient in their motions that they often just didn’t scan as working particularly hard. I’ve never personally been chased by a cheetah, but I imagine one could get pretty distracted marveling at its economy of movement before realizing it’s just about to pounce.

As if anticipating this cognitive disconnect among their spectators, the good people at USA Swimming designed the trials experience to include an “Aqua Zone,” an interactive fan fest held in a convention center next to the arena. The area surrounding the CenturyLink Center has grown immensely in the four years since the trials were last held there, and nearly every swimmer offered rave reviews of both the venue and the fans, who were as thunderous during close finishes as any NHL or NBA contest I’ve attended. During the first few days of the trials, the College World Series was simultaneously going on about a block away in the gorgeous new TD Ameritrade Park; local bartenders spoke of the event overlap with dollar signs flashing in their eyes.

At the Aqua Zone you could speak to representatives from Myrtha Pools, the people who had constructed from scratch, in the span of 10 days, the twin tanks — one for the races, and one for practice — inside the multi-purpose CenturyLink Center. You could choose from several dozen styles of goggles in a giant Speedo emporium. You could ride a mechanical shark. But most important, you could experience just what it took to move that quickly through the water, whether via video-game simulation, or in a live-action freestyle erg race (kind of like a rowing machine, except you’re on your stomach), or, if you had your bathing suit on you, inside a swimming treadmill of sorts called the “Michael Phelps Swim Spa.”

I joined a 45-minute line comprising mostly packs of tween girls and their parents to “take the Michael Phelps Swim Spa Challenge.” So many tween girls at the swimming trials, by the way, with their drawstring backpacks and their coltish legs and those slumped-forward shoulders that drive most mothers nuts. (The poor posture is half a 12-year-old-girl thing, and half a swimmer thing.) They wore the shortest shorts this side of Rio and T-shirts bearing the names of their hometown swim clubs, many festooned with harpoons, or dolphins, or stick figures doubled over on starting blocks.

They walked down the sidewalks in tangled-together packs, the girls on the end leaning in so as not to be left out of the conversation, and they dangled themselves down from the stands wielding programs and sweatshirts and Sharpies for signing as the swimmers plodded by, chests heaving, after a race. (“You’ve gotten so many!” I heard one girl whine to her friends, who wouldn’t hear of it. “Whatever, you got Phelps. That’s worth, like, all the rest.”) And they stood in line at the Aqua Zone, braiding each other’s hair while they waited for their turns. It’s enough to give a grown woman some mighty damaging fifth-grade flashbacks.

Anyway, back to the Challenge. You get in the whirlpool and they turn on the jet stream to Phelps’s training speed, and you see how long you can swim until the impossible current slams you into the wall. (If you get to three minutes, you’ve won.) As my turn was approaching, the woman with the waiver forms came up to me and said, brightly, “Hiya, mom! Your name goes here, and the kids’ names go here.” The only reason I wasn’t offended was because this was Nebraska: Most of the actual mothers were about five years my junior, and way skinnier too.

I’m a decent swimmer, I had thought, having been on our local team as a kid and, later, spending a few summers lifeguarding and teaching swimming to kiddos, methodically repeating tips like “monkey, airplane, soldier” (elementary backstroke) and “shark fin, and reach!” (freestyle) that I had been taught years before. I grew up being tossed into violent oceans by my father to fend for myself, and my gym has a pool where I like to swim laps.

I climbed into the swim spa, adjusted my cap and goggles, and began my gentle, by-the-book, former-swim-teacher crawl. Then they cranked up the jets. Water surged up my nose and down my throat. I flailed wildly, like a drowning victim on uppers.

Michael Phelps, the guy running the event had told me, typically practices at this speed for 12 minutes at a time — “three minutes for each stroke.”

I lasted 17 seconds.

In her new illustrated memoir Swimming Studies, former Canadian swimmer Leanne Shapton writes of the bleakness of just missing out. “Say I’m swimming with people, in the ocean, a pool, or a lake,” she writes, “and one of them knows about my history as a swimmer, they might remark to the others: ‘Leanne’s an Olympic swimmer’ and I’ll correct them: ‘No, no, I only went as far as the Olympic trials — I didn’t go to the Olympics.’ … I explain that to go to the Olympics you have to finish first or second at the trials. This is where the conversations end.”

Later, she describes a so-close-and-yet-so-far teammate: “Beth had missed the team by a hundredth of a second. A hundredth. I remember Beth’s face, glazed, stoic, on the awards podium. It was hard to watch, like watching the bereaved.”

When you’ve got a Phelps and a Lochte in the same event, in other words, there’s a good shot anyone else will be left with that look on their face. That’s what happened to 23-year-old Tyler Clary, who finished third in the 400 IM on the first night. In the Olympics, such a finish would earn him a bronze medal. In the trials, it doesn’t even yield him a spot on the team. It seemed like a grim continuation of his devastating 2008 trials, in which he finished third once and fourth twice.

But on Thursday, he nabbed a spot in the 200 butterfly. “To come here and make everything come together in a meet is like the biggest endorphin rush you could ever experience,” he said, sounding just a few drugs shy of a double rainbow, “and the biggest explosion of serotonin in your head.”

Clary, who also qualified in the 200 backstroke, is one of several notable new faces who will be competing in their first Olympic Games. The splashiest of the bunch is Missy Franklin, a 17-year-old rising high school senior who is as effusive and bubbly as the girls bopping around the stands, even if, at 6-foot-1½, she’s a teensy bit taller. Franklin doesn’t just smile, she laughs and she beams and she clutches her hand to her heart, as if to try to contain it.

When she won the 100 backstroke Wednesday night, setting a new American record in the process, Franklin was asked how it felt to be an Olympian. Up went that hand again.

“I can’t even — you just said I’m an Olympian, oh my gosh!” she gushed. By the end of the week, she had qualified for six more events.

With the worst and most harrowing meet of the year behind them, the members of the U.S. Olympic swim team now have a few weeks to train, which they will do first in Tennessee and then in France. They will try to find cures for what’s ailed them, even in their winning efforts: for Franklin, it’s her starts; for Phelps and Lochte, it’s their tendencies to race one another rather than chase their own personal bests.

It’s not that it gets any easier, though. Hearts will inevitably be broken in London, although so will world records. “I stopped owning those records two years ago when I retired,” said Aaron Peirsol, the former gold medalist who was at the meet as a spectator. “Nothing I can do about that. Those will get broken. And it belongs to somebody like Matt [Grevers] to break. I’ll be rooting for him to do it, and I know that he can — he’s so close.”

For some swimmers, like 15-year-old Katie Ledecky, who won the 800 freestyle by a significant two-second margin, this will be just the opening chapter of their careers. For others, like the 36-year-old Jason Lezak, it will be more like an epilogue. (Forty-five-year-old Dana Torres’s bid to write her own Neverending Story finally came to an end last night when she finished fourth in the 50 free.) Peirsol, who at just 28 is, in the swimming world, a retired old man, described his first Games at age 17 and his final one eight years later as “daylight and twilight.”

Still, even for the oldish guard there remain vivid flashes of relative youth. On the night he beat Lochte in the 200 IM, Phelps turned a grizzled 27 years old. After he was awarded the medal — rising up from below the ground on an American-flag platform that served as a Broadway-style winner’s podium — arena emcee Summer Sanders led the 14,000-plus crowd in a big rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

Phelps couldn’t help his goofy smile, and when the song had ended, he circled the rink to hug his sister and mom. He may not be getting any younger, but at that moment the years seemed to drip off of him like water.

Filed Under: Celebrities, College Sports, Ryan Lochte, The U

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

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