OMAHA, Neb. – After a couple of epic duels with his biggest rival, Michael Phelps made this one look easy.
Phelps stayed on course to swim eight events at the London Games, pulling away for a dominating win in the 200-meter butterfly at the U.S. Olympic trials on Thursday night.
"The last 25 meters are pretty painful," Phelps said. "I just wanted to get to the wall and secure another spot on the team."
Phelps has locked up three individual events for London and he's got two more to go in Omaha. Combined with a likely spot on all three relays, the 26-year-old from Baltimore — already the winningest Olympian ever — would have a chance to duplicate his record from the Beijing Games if he doesn't stumble over the next three days.
Davis Tarwater led at the first and second turns, but there was never any doubt about Phelps pulling ahead in his signature stroke. He surged to the front on the third leg, his body slinking through the water like a dolphin, and was a body-length ahead of the field when he touched in 1 minute, 53.65 seconds.
Phelps had a much easier time than his first two events at Omaha, when he was going against Ryan Lochte. Phelps edged out Lochte in the 200 free after losing to him in the 400 individual medley (but still finishing second, earning an Olympic spot).
Phelps said he'll have to go even faster in London to claim his third straight gold in the 200 fly.
But he appears to be getting stronger every day.
"It's not a good enough time to win a gold medal, but I think I'm OK with it," he said. "Going into the last wall. I didn't want to have any close ones, so I tried to stay under as long as I could. Today was the best my stroke has felt throughout the whole meet."
The real race was for second place — and another spot on the Olympic team. Tyler Clary, who lost out to Phelps in the 400 individual medley, rallied from behind for a time of 1:55.12, edging Bobby Bollier's touch of 1:55.79.
Clary pumped his right fist and pounded the water when he saw a "2'' beside his name on the scoreboard. When Phelps got out of the water, he walked side-by-side with Clary along the deck, patting the first-time Olympian on the back of the head.
"When I got out I said to him, 'It's pretty cool to make your first one,' and he goes, 'You have no idea how good that feels,'" Phelps said. "It was definitely cool to watch his excitement, and swimming with him for a couple of years of school, you see how much of a hard worker he is. It's cool to see everything pay off."
Clary was the silver medalist behind Lochte in the 400 IM at last year's world championships, but Phelps restored the event to his program and Clary wound up third at the trials — out of the Olympics.
Now, London's calling.
"It was amazing," Clary said. "I can't even put into words how the end of that race felt, not only the pain in the last 20 meters but just the complete and total turnaround.
"I'm on cloud nine right now," he added
Phelps isn't the only one building a busy Olympic schedule. His training partner, Allison Schmitt, was equally dominating in the 200 free. She broke her own American record with a time of 1:54.40, the best in the world this year. Already the winner in the 400 free, she eclipsed the national record set in the 2009 world championships at Rome.
"I didn't feel like I was on my record pace, but I could hear the crowd," Schmitt said. "And when I touched and saw the flames go off I was pretty excited before I even looked up and saw the time."
Seventeen-year-old Missy Franklin locked up another Olympic race, claiming the second 200 spot in 1:56.79. She rallied from fifth place at the first turn to take the runner-up position. Franklin already won the 100 backstroke and looks poised to have another huge performance in London, after breaking through at last year's worlds with five medals.
She's more excited about being on the 800 free relay.
"Relays are such a big part of what we do," Franklin said. "Being part of a team is so special."
Dana Vollmer and Lauren Perdue finished third and fourth, assuring themselves of being in the pool for the 800 free relay. Shannon Vreeland (fifth) and Alyssa Anderson (sixth) also are likely to be taken to London as potential relay swimmers.
Caitlin Leverenz locked up two events at her first Olympics with a victory in the 200 individual medley. Already a runner-up in the 400 IM, she was dominating on the final two legs — breaststroke and freestyle — and pulled away to win in 2:10.22.
"Typically people close on me in the freestyle, so I just put my head down and went for it," Leverenz said.
Ariana Kukors, who won gold in the event at the 2009 world championships and was third at last year's worlds, rallied to claim a spot on her first Olympic team, as well. She touched second in 2:11.30, just 25-hundredths ahead of Elizabeth Pelton, who led the first two laps but couldn't hang on.
Lochte didn't have any finals on this day, and he passed on a chance to swim in the 100 free final Friday because he didn't want it to take away from his stronger events. Merely looking to strengthen his bid for another relay spot, Lochte tied for fifth-fastest in the semifinals (48.91), good enough for a spot in the final if he had wanted it.
But Lochte has the 200 backstroke and 200 IM on Friday, and he's the defending world champion in both.
"I have a hard double tomorrow," he said. "I know I have a enough time to do the 100 free, but we already made a plan going into this meet that I was just going to do semifinals of 100 free, and then whatever happens, happens."
When Lochte scratched, 36-year-old Jason Lezak moved up to take a spot in the final. Of course, he was the sprinter who saved Phelps' bid for eight gold medals in Beijing with a stunning last leg of the 400 free relay, somehow passing French star Alain Bernard.
"He better owe me something," Lochte joked when asked about giving Lezak another chance to get back to the Olympics.
Matt Grevers also scratched the final, but that didn't help Anthony Ervin. A gold medalist at the Sydney Olympics and a former world champion in the 100 free, he came back from a nearly decade-long retirement to finish 13th in the semifinals. That leaves the chaotic 50 free as the 31-year-old Ervin's only chance to make the Olympic team.
Also Thursday, Clark Burckle was top qualifier in the 200 breaststroke semifinals, while favorites Eric Shanteau and Brendan Hansen advanced with the second- and third-fastest times. Cammile Adams was fastest in the women's 200 fly semifinals, followed by Kathleen Hersey and Teresa Crippen.
Crippen is the sister of the late Fran Crippen, an American open water star who died during a 2010 race, and she's hoping to carry his legacy all the way to London.
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