Ryan Lochte will be in Rio, but this year’s swimming Olympic trials are becoming a changing of the guard for the U.S.
The 11-time Olympic medalist has been slowed down by a groin injury and twice failed to make Team USA in an individual event at this week’s trials. However, he clinched a spot in the 4x200 relay and booked his ticket to Brazil.
"I'm just happy that I'm going to Rio," Lochte said, sounding downright relieved after finishing fourth in the 200-meter freestyle which he dominated at the 2012 London Games. "You can never go in knowing that you're going to make the team, just because the U.S. is one of the hardest countries to make the Olympic team."
The difficulty of clinching a spot for the Olympics has been incredibly apparent, not just to Lochte, but other of America’s biggest swimming stars who are struggling against rising stars.
Missy Franklin – the bubbly star of the London games – finished in a dismal seventh-place in the 100 backstroke, denying her a chance to defend the gold medal she won four years ago.
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Racing just 23 minutes after qualifying for the final of the 200 free, the 21-year-old Franklin couldn't pull off the grueling double. She finished nearly a body length behind winner Olivia Smoliga and runner-up Kathleen Baker, who will represent the U.S. in what was once Franklin's signature event.
"It's going to be really hard not to be in that (event) this summer," Franklin said. "But I cannot wait to watch how Olivia and Kathleen do, and I can't wait to see what they're capable of."
She added, with a tinge of desperation in her voice: "Right now, I need to make the team in whatever way that looks like.”
The only swimmer to finish behind Franklin was 12-time medalist Natalie Coughlin. The 33-year-old likely missed out on her best chance to make the team in an individual event, though there's a chance she could still qualify in a relay.
Coughlin's result was not unexpected as she winds down her career. Franklin's downfall is shocking, though not a total surprise.
The 21-year-old has struggled since turning pro last summer and seems a bit overwhelmed by the enormous expectations she faced going into an Olympic year, knowing everyone — fans, sponsors, media, fellow athletes — expected her to burn even brighter after she claimed four golds and a bronze while still just a high schooler in London.
"I am feeling more pressure than I ever have before, but that's all part of the process ... learning how to deal with it and learning how to move forward," Franklin said. "All I can do is the best I can do."
On the men’s side, Matt Grevers – the defending Olympic gold medalist in the men’s 100 backstroke, finished third behind Ryan Murphy and David Plummer.
"It wasn't that tight. They beat me by a half-second," Grevers said. "I think I'm a little stunned. I think after I let it sink in, I'll be more distraught than I currently am."
Ten of the swimmers who claimed likely spots for Rio on Tuesday night will be first-time Olympians.
But a couple of the most recognizable names are doing just fine.
Katie Ledecky is living up to her staggering expectations, and the most decorated Olympian of them all, Michael Phelps, looked as dominant as ever in his first event of the meet.
Ledecky was easily the top qualifier in the semifinals of the 200 free at 1:55.10, more than a second ahead of everyone else, as she looks to add a second event to her Rio schedule. She already won the 400 free, will be an overwhelming favorite in the 800 free and also entered the 100 free.
Then there's Phelps, who already has 18 golds and 22 medals overall — and came out of retirement seeking to win a few more before he calls it quits again.
He was more than a second ahead of the next-fastest swimmer in the semifinals of the 200 butterfly, powering through the water with ease while his 7-week-old son, Boomer, watched from the stands, his mother covering the infant's ears as the crowd roared for his dad.
Phelps, whose time was 1:55.17, couldn't help but notice all the newcomers on the U.S. team.
"I don't even know half of them," he said. "It's exciting to have new faces, where people are really pumped to come up in the sport. That's a good thing to see as I'm on my way out."
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.