OMAHA, Neb.—Shortly after Michael Phelps finished the 200-meter freestyle last night, Mark Schubert, the venerable coach of the U.S. swim team, walked down onto the pool deck inside Qwest Center and threw an arm around the Rodgers Forge native.
Schubert leaned in close and said something in Phelps' ear that made the 23-year-old chuckle. Phelps had just touched the wall in 1 minute, 44.10 seconds, which, in addition to being the third-fastest time in the history of the 200, also earned Phelps a second spot on the U.S. Olympic team. (The 200 freestyle was the only individual event Phelps didn't win at the 2004 Olympics.)
What did Schubert want to tell the world's fastest swimmer?
"That's just between him and me," Schubert said, shrugging off a reporter's inquiry.
As they say in Australia, no worries, Mark. It's almost more fun to speculate about what you could have said:
"Thanks for making my job so much easier."
"I'm so glad you weren't born in Australia."
"Every day, I count my blessings that you weren't better at lacrosse."
The possibilities are endless, just as they are each time Phelps dives into the pool. Sure, his time in the 200 freestyle was a few ticks slower than the world record he set in Melbourne last year (1:43.86), but he didn't nail his final turn, and he also didn't have anyone pushing him as he will in Beijing.
His friend and rival, Ryan Lochte, probably would have been his best competition, especially given that he was a few tenths faster than Phelps in the semifinal. But Lochte dropped out of the event to focus on the 100-meter backstroke last night, then finished third behind Aaron Piersol (who broke his own world record by going 52.98) and Matt Grevers.
It was just another example of how cutthroat any given night at the U.S. Trials can be, and last night was filled with drama. Only the top two finishers in each event make the Olympic team, regardless of how strong the field is, meaning someone like Lochte, a potential medal winner in Beijing, might end up watching the event on TV.
That scenario also unfolded for Hayley McGregory in the 100-meter backstroke. McGregory, the NCAA champion from the University of Tennessee, set a world record in the semifinals of the 100 backstroke Monday. But last night, she finished third behind Natalie Coughlin (58.97, another world record) and Margaret Hoelzer (59.21).
"The U.S. is so competitive, you always have to bring your A game," said Towson's Katie Hoff, who posted the fastest times in the semifinals of the 200-meter freestyle and the 200-meter individual medley. "I was worried about the 400 freestyle [Monday]. I wasn't sure if I was going to make it. It stinks that we can only bring the top two, but you've just got to race and get in there."
Few competitors outside Phelps have ever relished the thrill of racing more than Piersol, a 24-year-old Californian who seems wise beyond his years. Piersol, who won gold in the 100 backstroke in Athens, has been dreaming for years of becoming the first man to break the 53-second mark, and he did it last night without swimming the perfect race.
"That's the best field I've ever been in," Piersol said. "Better than any Olympic field."
How fast was it? Sixth-place finisher Nick Thoman went 53.79, which was faster than Piersol's gold medal-winning time (54.06) in Athens.
"That is ridiculous," Piersol said.
Phelps has been getting the lion's share of the press at these trials, but what's becoming more apparent is just how deep the men's team is going to be in Beijing next month.
Schubert and Bob Bowman were practically giddy looking at the top six times in the 200-meter freestyle last night, dreaming of the times the United States could post in the 800-meter freestyle relay.
"I think we could put together the fastest four guys ever," Phelps said. "It's a real possibility that we could see something unbelievable."
Phelps will have a good shot at another personal world record tonight in the 200-meter butterfly, an event he has obliterated the past four years. Fatigue, in his mind, won't be a factor.
"I'm not extremely exhausted, by any means," Phelps said. "I'm hurting a little bit, but that's fine."