OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Michael Phelps wasn’t competing on opening night of the U.S. Olympic swimming trials. Still, the 18-time gold medalist’s influence impacted the results in the 400-meter individual medley, an event he once dominated.
With a proud Phelps looking on, his training partner Chase Kalisz (KAY-lish) won the final Sunday night, becoming the first swimmer to make the team for the Rio Games. Kalisz overtook defending Olympic champion Ryan Lochte for the lead on the breaststroke leg and went on to win in 4 minutes, 9.54 seconds.
Kalisz has admired Phelps since they both swam at North Baltimore Aquatic Club under coach Bob Bowman. Back then, Kalisz was a pesky kid and Phelps was already an Olympic champion. Kalisz and his teammates would twirl the spinners on the wheels of Phelps’ tricked-out Escalade in the parking lot at a local meet when the superstar swimmer wasn’t around.
“He would come out and catch us all and set off his car alarm, and we would freak out and run,” Kalisz recalled.
He and his co-conspirators wheedled multiple autographs out of Phelps which they traded for T-shirts from other swim teams.
“He’s a brother to me,” said Phelps, who at 30 is eight years older than Kalisz.
The relationship has flourished in the Arizona desert, where Phelps moved to continue training with Bowman, who became head coach at Arizona State last year. Kalisz took a year off of school at Georgia to join them in pursuit of his first Olympics.
Phelps is attempting to swim at his fifth and last Olympics. He was a two-time gold medalist in the 400 IM before finishing fourth in the London Games four years ago. He’s dropped the grueling event from his program, so seeing Kalisz win the race and keep it in the NABC family moved him to tears in the stands.
“I know Chase is very determined,” Phelps said. “I’ve watched him, I train with him every day, and the kid works his butt off.”
Phelps’ future retirement plans include becoming a volunteer assistant under Bowman at ASU. He’s testing his coaching skills on Kalisz, and sometimes it gets a little rough.
“When Michael gets on you, it’s pretty severe,” Bowman said. “It’s kind of nonstop for a while. When I do, it’s like a nuclear bomb got dropped on your head for about 2 1/2 minutes, but after that it’s over. Michael kind of keeps it going.”
Kalisz considers himself lucky to have Phelps, whom he describes as “the greatest swimmer of all time,” and Bowman giving tips.
“I’m very hard on him,” Phelps said. “There was a time when he actually asked Bob if I could back off a little bit. I just see potential and I want him to be the best he can be. He made some incredible improvements this year.”
It paid off during the first race at trials in front of a raucous, sold-out crowd at CenturyLink Center.
Kalisz was third through the opening 150 meters before moving up to second behind Lochte, who later said he pulled his groin in the morning preliminaries. Just as he did in prelims, Kalisz overtook Lochte on the breaststroke leg and stayed in front to the finish.
“I don’t have a fly and backstroke like him, so I got to play to my strengths,” Kalisz said. “I knew what I needed to do was build the first 50 breaststroke, like I talked to Michael and Bob about, and just hammer it as hard as I can coming home on the 150.”
Phelps found his way to Kalisz after the race and conveyed his pride.
“That was just a very emotional moment,” Kalisz said. “Michael has been like an older brother to me that I never had. He’s been the one guy that I’ve looked up to my entire life. I’ve never had a role model as big as him.”
Phelps watched the race from the media section, where he provided commentary for NBC. He touted unknown Jay Litherland as someone to watch over the last 100 meters, and it turns out the winningest Olympian in history was right.
Litherland finished second in 4:11.02 and claimed the other berth for Rio.
“He trained with us a little bit in Colorado when we were up there at altitude,” Phelps said. “The kid can swim. He closes races really well.”