Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin, Allison Schmitt and Dana Vollmer all won individual Olympic gold medals in 2012 and then dealt with unique challenges to their dominance in this Olympic cycle.
On Friday, all four captured U.S. Winter National titles in events where they reigned in London.
Start with Phelps, the 22-time Olympic medalist who last year came out of a 20-month competitive retirement and then was suspended following a September 2014 DUI arrest.
On Friday, Phelps clocked 51.38 seconds to win the 100m butterfly at the U.S. Winter Nationals in Federal Way, Wash. Phelps came back to defeat Tom Shields, the second-best American in the event, by .03.
That’s his fourth-fastest time ever outside of summer meets in the event, which he’s won at the last three Olympics, according to USA Swimming’s times database.
“I just had a friend of mine text me, actually, today, and he was like, dude, you’re 30 years old, and you’re still doing times better than you have in the past,” Phelps told media in Federal Way. “I said it just shows anything is possible.”
Swimmers generally train to peak in the summer — and certainly not December. And of the three faster non-summer times, two of them were from the 2007 World Championships and the 2005 World Championships trials, meets Phelps certainly trained to peak for.
On Thursday, Phelps won the 200m individual medley in a time 1.69 seconds faster than at a meet in Minneapolis three weeks ago.
“A good place to be,” Phelps, who on Aug. 8 swam the world’s fastest 100m butterfly time (50.45) since 2009, told NBC’s Carolyn Manno on Friday. “It’s really just trying to swim the fastest times that I can unshaved. For me to be where I am right now and to be kind of unshaved, unrested and still being able to swim some of the fastest times I’ve been able to swim in-season in my life, I think it’s a good sign.”
Winter Nationals conclude Saturday and will be streamed live the next on USASwimming.org/Nationals at 9 p.m. ET. NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra will air coverage Sunday from 1-2 p.m. ET.
In other events, Franklin beat Natalie Coughlin in their first 100m backstroke final duel since the 2012 Olympic trials (when Franklin also won and Coughlin was an agonizing third after winning the 2004 and 2008 Olympic titles).
Franklin prevailed in Federal Way in 1:00.03 after being fifth at the halfway point.
“Gave myself a little bit of a heart attack there,” Franklin told media in Federal Way.
The 33-year-old Coughlin placed fourth at 1:00.41, but is still the fastest American in the event this year (59.05) after shying away from the backstroke in 2013 and 2014.
Franklin is returning from a back injury that plagued her at the biggest meet of 2014, the Pan Pacific Championships, and a six-meet individual race winless drought this summer.
“Every single time I race, I learn something,” Franklin told Manno. “I’ve made some major improvements since this summer.”
She’s got five Olympic medals and has said her goal is to become the most successful female Olympic swimmer of all time. The medals record is currently shared by the retired Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres, plus Coughlin, who has entered 12 career Olympic events and earned medals in all of them.
Earlier Friday, Franklin suffered a defeat in the 200m freestyle. Allison Schmitt beat Franklin in the event for the first time since Schmitt broke the Olympic record in the London Games final, where Franklin was fourth.
“Mentally, I’m still struggling with that race a little,” Franklin told media in Federal Way.
Since the 2012 Olympics, Schmitt has dealt with depression and failed to make the U.S. team for the 2013 World Championships, 2014 Pan Pacific Championships and 2015 World Championships.
Schmitt, who also won the 400m free Thursday, must likely beat Franklin in the 200m free again at the Olympic trials on June 29 to make the Rio team in the event. That’s because Katie Ledecky is the World champion and two make the Olympic team.
Also Friday, Olympic champion Dana Vollmer won the women’s 100m butterfly in 57.95, her fastest time since coming back from a nearly two-year break to have a baby.
Vollmer’s time ranks her No. 16 in the world and, more importantly, No. 3 among Americans for the year behind Kelsi Worrell (57.24) and Katie McLaughlin (57.87). Worrell and McLaughlin are not competing in Federal Way.
The top two at the Olympic trials on June 27 in Omaha make the Olympic team.
“Time-wise, I feel like I’m still the same person,” said Vollmer, whose since-broken world record from the London Games was 55.98. “I have a 55 in me, and I just gotta get back to it. … It’s nice to see time chipping away slowly.”
Another U.S. Olympic champion, Matt Grevers, captured the men’s 100m back in 52.54, bettering his disappointing bronze-medal time from the World Championships on Aug. 4 by .12 of a second.
“I wanted to redeem myself a little bit after Worlds,” Grevers told media in Federal Way. “I was hoping for a little better.”
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