OMAHA, Neb. — It's on: Michael Phelps will seek to qualify for the London Olympics in the 400-meter individual medley Monday morning, a grueling event that he just can't seem to quit.
The event will open the trials here, as well as the Games themselves in July. Phelps owns the race, or at least the national and world records for it, but he enters the trials seeded third, to his prime rival Ryan Lochte and the swimmer who said this weekend that he doubted the Baltimore swimmer would try to qualify in it, Tyler Clary.
Phelps himself kept silent on his plans for the medley, as he has for his entire line-up for the trials and his fourth and final Olympics, seemingly enjoying the guessing game he triggered. By early Sunday afternoon, though, he had shaved the monumental mustache he had grown in recent weeks, posting a before-and-after picture on his Twitter account, part of the hair removal ritual that swimmers undergo to prepare for racing.
He had to pull out of the race by Sunday evening, and didn't. There is still a chance he could scratch after the morning preliminaries, which begin at 11 a.m., and opt not to swim in the finals in the evening.
That Phelps wants to compete in swimming's most demanding race in his final Olympics signals that he wants to exit big, rather than safe. Phelps vowed he wouldn't swim the taxing race after Beijing, but he continued returning to it in both international and Grand Prix competitions.
He and Bob Bowman, his coach, have said he likely will swim in six or seven events, which probably would include some relays. At the trials, which run through July 2, he also signed up for the 200 IM, the 100 and 200 butterflies, the 100 and 200 freestyles and the 200 back, although he is expected to scratch some of those.
Hoff won’t do 400 IM
The women's 400 IM, also scheduled for Monday, had a bit of intrigue of its own. Katie Hoff, who holds the American record in the event, let drop Saturday that she won't try to qualify for London in the event.
Hoff, who trained at North Baltimore Aquatic Club in the years leading up to the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, said she is turning her attention to fewer events these days. After tearing up the pool in the 2008 trials — she was the only woman to qualify in all 13 events — she acknowledged that her Beijing program was exhausting. Entering five individual events plus a relay, she won a silver and two bronze medals.
“I'm more focused,” Hoff said of her current mindset. “I've zeroed my focus in on a couple events.”
Hoff said she will swim in the 200 and 400 freestyles.
Hoff has coach-hopped a bit, and recently returned to Paul Yetter, her coach for much of her time at NBAC, who is now training swimmers at T2 Aquatics in Naples, Fla. In between, she worked with Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, and Jon Urbancheck at the Fullerton, Calif., Aquatics Sports Team. Hoff's parents still live in the Baltimore area.
Now 23, Hoff says she's much more relaxed than her younger, more anxious self, shackled as she was with the “female Phelps” label and all the expectations that go along with that.
“I was so worried, what if I didn't make the team? What would people say?” she said, remembering the dread she felt approaching the 2008 trials. “Now, I'm going to go out there, whatever is going to happen is going to happen.”
Phelps’ impact felt
On the eve of the eight-day competition, swimming officials reveled in how their sport has grown in popularity, thanks in large part to Phelps and his riveting Beijing performance, which national team director Frank Busch called “the most impressive Olympics of anyone in history.”
The trials themselves have become a major sporting event, drawing a record attendance of 160,000 in 2008, when they were also held in Omaha.
This year's attendance could be even greater, if only because the number of swimmers competing has grown, and surely they'll bring even more family and friends to watch them. More than 1,800 swimmers are entered in the trials, compared to about 1,250 four years ago.
“This is a special time for a special sport, and we're all lucky enough to be a part of it,” Busch said.
While he and other USA Swimming officials credited current stars, and the rivalry between Phelps and Lochte, they also sought to highlight up-and-coming swimmers, including perhaps the brightest of them, the 17-year-old Missy Franklin.
The effervescent Franklin, who apparently finds much of life quite “awesome,” said she handles the growing spotlight by staying focused on the people closest to her.