OMAHA — Outside the CenturyLink Center on Saturday, a scalper was selling tickets to the fifth day of the United States Olympic swimming trials. It was 8:15 a.m.
This is how Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte are changing the sport: one sellout at a time.
Phelps and Lochte put on a show for the crowd, with enough fireworks for an early Fourth of July show. Lochte won the 200-meter backstroke, finished second to Phelps in the 200 individual medley and qualified, with Phelps, for the 100 butterfly final.
The only way he could have busted his lungs any more would have been by singing the national anthem to open the night session.
The 200 backstroke was Lochte’s first race, and for the first 150 meters he trailed Tyler Clary, who made the Olympic team in the 200 butterfly. Lochte torpedoed off the last turn, using his superlative underwater kick to erase in a few seconds the advantage that Clary had spent the first 1 minute 25 seconds building. At the finish it was Lochte touching first in 1:54.54, followed by Clary, in 1:54.88. Nick Thoman, the third-place finisher, was 2.18 seconds slower.
That is an eternity in swimming, as was driven home later in the evening in the women’s 100-meter freestyle final. The winner, Jessica Hardy, was separated by the eighth-place finisher, Madison Kennedy, by 87-hundredths of a second.
After Hardy missed a trip to London by one place in the 100 breaststroke, her Trojan Aquatics teammate Rebecca Soni expressed confidence that Hardy would be on the Olympic team by the week’s end. Hardy was timed in 53.96 in the 100 freestyle, just ahead of Missy Franklin (54.15), who had posted the best time in the 200 backstroke semifinals less than 25 minutes earlier.
In 2008, the two youngest competitors at the trials were Colorado’s Franklin and Brooklyn’s Lia Neal, who were 13. The teenagers now have more than their precocity in common. They will be teammates on the Olympic 400 freestyle relay, with Neal punching her ticket to London by finishing fourth in the 100 freestyle final in 54.33, three-hundredths behind Allison Schmitt, the winner of the 200 and 400 freestyles.
“I would have been happy to get sixth,” Neal said. “I just wanted to make the team. To get fourth is just crazy.”
Also earning a relay berth was the 29-year-old Natalie Coughlin, whose dreams of making her third Olympic team appeared to be in jeopardy after she failed to qualify in the 100 butterfly or the 100 backstroke.
As she made her way to the warm-down pool after the final, Coughlin, the two-time defending Olympic champion in the 100 backstroke, was greeted by fellow swimmers as if she had cheated death, which perhaps was not as strange as it sounded. After qualifying for the 100 freestyle final, Coughlin said, “I walk around the deck, and people act like I’m dying.”
Amanda Beard’s dreams of competing in a fifth Olympics ended when she finished fifth in the 200 breaststroke, the event she won at the Athens Games in 2004. Beard was third at 100 meters, but was unable to summon her signature finishing kick. She was timed in 2:26.42, well behind the winner, Soni (2:21.13).
Lochte looked spent after the 200 backstroke. He climbed out of the pool and walked like a man whose legs had fallen asleep.
“If you’re a backstroker, anyone can tell you that it’s probably one of hardest events out there,” he said. “It just takes your legs out of you.”
Twenty-nine minutes later, he stepped to the blocks for the 200 individual medley against a fresh Phelps. Between them, Lochte and Phelps have the top nine performances in history. Lochte took the world record from Phelps three years ago, but Phelps reasserted himself in the race with a wire-to-wire win. Neither swimmer seemed pleased with his time, with Phelps clocking a 1:54.84 to Lochte’s 1:54.93 (his world record is a 1:54.00).
“I’m sure that’s not going to be the end of us going back and forth,” Phelps said. “I’m just happy to be able to have a good race like that.”
Phelps had to leave a little gas in the tank for the 100 butterfly semifinals less than 30 minutes later. He led all finalists with a time of 51.35, showing roughly the same speed as four years ago when he qualified in 51.10. Lochte was sixth in the elite field, which, aside from Phelps, the world-record holder, included three other swimmers on the top-10 list: Tyler McGill, who was second; Davis Tarwater, fourth; and Tim Phillips, fifth.
“Just being able to get up and racing the top people in the world and racing them all the way to the finish, it’s one of the hardest things to do,” Lochte said, adding: “I knew I was up for the challenge. It was definitely hard. I’m a little tired, but you know what, it’s good for me.”
It was certainly good for the sport to have Lochte and Phelps in so many races. Swimming has come a long way since 1960 when, as Donna de Varona noted wryly, there were only six events on the women’s Olympic program. Saturday night’s crowd was another sellout, with more than 14,000 people holding their breath while Lochte and Phelps and Franklin expelled every ounce of air left in their lungs.