OMAHA, Neb. — He left Room 833 in the Hilton Hotel on Saturday afternoon and took that long walk one last time, strolling over the enclosed skybridge to the CenturyLink Center.
What a sight it was, the 22-time Olympic medal winner striding toward the final U.S. Olympic trials race of his career. He smiled and nodded to different security personnel—he knew it was the last time he’d ever see them—and kept moving, not in a hurry, as if he wanted to savor every sight and sound of the moment.
As he neared the pool, he told his coach, Bob Bowman, “I don’t want to lose my last race on American soil.” He then mounted his starting block on the pool deck in lane 7 for the 100-meter butterfly. Hundreds of fans raised their iPhones above their heads to record the moment for posterity.
Then Michael Phelps was off, a speedboat racing across the water.
Phelps has won three gold medals in the 100 butterfly and owns the world record. But he had struggled in the semifinals on Friday, qualifying sixth. Given the flameouts of several aging stars in Omaha—Natalie Coughlin, a 12-time Olympic medal winner, failed to qualify for Rio and so did Matt Grevers, the defending gold medalist in the 100-meter backstroke—it was reasonable to wonder if time had finally caught up with the 31-year-old Phelps.
But then he summoned the magic one final time. With the crowd of 14,000 in full throat at CenturyLink, he flipped for his final turn—in fourth place. Part of what makes Phelps such a dynamic swimmer is his closing speed, and over the final 25 meters of the race, he seemed to find that extra gear that only he possesses.
He beat Tom Shields in a time of 51 seconds flat . As soon as Phelps looked up at the scoreboard to confirm his victory, he pounded the water in excitement. He then pointed to his family his stands, which included his fiancee Nicole Johnson and Boomer, their seven-week-old son.
Phelps—who recently admitted to Wayne Drehs of ESPN The Magazine that he had been plagued with suicidal thoughts after he was arrested for DUI in 2014 and before he checked into rehab for 45 days in the Arizona desert—had never looked so happy.
Indeed, throughout his entire week in Omaha, Phelps exuded a sense of joy, constantly smiling at the crowds and reveling in signing autographs. When he retired in 2012 after the London Olympics he was, by his own admission, psychologically worn down and on the verge of emotional burnout. He despised swimming so much that he compared it to “pulling teeth.” But now, his passion for the sport appears as strong as ever—he was sending texts to his coach at 5 a.m. on the morning of races wanting to discuss strategy—as does his inner peace. Yes, the Olympic god has been reborn.
“I love being in the water. I love racing. I love being at this level,” said Phelps, who told Bleacher Report he hasn’t had a drink of alcohol in over a year. “I didn’t want to have that ‘what if’ 20 years down the road. For me, it was strictly just because I wanted to come back, and I felt like I could be at my best when I came back. We’re not there yet, but we have a couple of weeks to see if I can get there.”
Phelps won his three individual events at the trials—the 100 butterfly, the 200 butterfly and the 200 individual medley. In Rio, he’ll be among the gold-medal favorites in each race and he’ll likely also swim on all three of the men’s relays. This means the odds are strong that he’ll pad his collection of 22 medals, including 18 golds.
But Phelps, a classic perfectionist, wasn’t happy with his times in Omaha.
“We have a couple of weeks to fix some things,” Phelps said. “I know if I want to be anywhere on the podium, some of those times are going to have to be a lot faster. ... You gotta be ready when the lights come on, and if you’re not, you could fall short by a hundredth or a few hundredths. That’s the tough part, because it is every four years, and that’s a long four years to wait for another chance.”
What did qualifying for his fifth—and final—Olympic games mean to Phelps? He’ll become the first American swimmer to compete in five different games, which may be his most impressive accomplishment. After winning the 200 butterfly on Wednesday to officially make the team, Phelps held up five fingers and smiled luminously. Bowman, his coach of two decades, stood off to the side. For the first time in his life at a pool, Bowman cried.
“That’s what it means to me,” he said.
Phelps’ best race in Omaha was his showdown on Friday night against Ryan Lochte in the 200 individual medley. The pair have combined to record the top 10 times in the world in the event, and they charged through the water side-by-side for the entire race. Phelps edged ahead on the final turn and, the crowd thundering, narrowly beat Lochte to the finish. In the world of swimming, this was arresting theater, as good as it gets.
Struggling to catch his breath, Lochte immediately gazed up at the scoreboard and then looked over at Phelps, his longtime rival. He sensed it was the end of something.
“I saw that I got second, but I wasn’t really thinking about that,” Lochte said. “I was looking at him and being like, ‘Wow, our journey is coming to an end.’ Racing against each other for 13 years, it was really sentimental. It was something that I’m definitely going to cherish for the rest of my life.”
Even Lochte didn’t seem to mind that he lost to the greatest swimmer in history. Michael Phelps conquered Omaha. Now Rio—with more history—awaits.