OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Michael Phelps surged to the wall, and then whipped around to spot his time.
That number wasn’t really important.
The only thing that mattered was No. 5.
Phelps became the first male swimmer to qualify for five Olympics with a victory in the 200-meter butterfly at the U.S. swimming trials Wednesday night, another huge milestone in the water but even more significant given what’s happened away from the pool.
A second drunken-driving arrest. A re-evaluation of his life. An impending marriage. And his first child.
With 7-week-old Boomer in the arms of his mother at the CenturyLink Center, Phelps cruised to a victory that meant as much personally as all those triumphs that came before.
The most decorated athlete in Olympic history is Rio bound.
“With everything that’s happened and being able to come back, that was probably harder than any swim I’ve had in my life,” Phelps said. “Just being able to finish how I want to is so important to me. Getting on this team is what I wanted to do.”
Phelps held off a stiff challenge from Tom Shields to win the 200 fly – the first event Phelps ever swam at the Olympics, 16 years ago in Sydney.
One day before his 31st birthday, Phelps came full circle in the race he’s always considered his baby.
Phelps touched in 1:54.84 – far off the world record of 1:51.51 he set at the 2009 world championships while wearing one of the high-tech suits that have since been banned.
There’s time to work on his speed between now and Rio.
For now, Phelps sounds like an Olympic rookie talking about the thrill of going back to the Olympics, where he’ll get a chance to add to the already staggering amount of hardware he’s accumulated at the last four Summer Games: 18 golds and 22 medals overall.
He also joined a pretty exclusive group with Dara Torres, who made five Olympics on the female side.
“I just said, ‘Welcome to the club,'” the now-retired Torres said. “Just to see his emotions and how excited he was and relieved, it was really nice to see.”
Going along for the ride this time is Boomer, who wore noise-canceling headphones adorned with American flags so he wouldn’t be startled by the huge roar that went up when his daddy touched the wall first.
After the award ceremony, Phelps ran around the deck to find his fiance, Nicole Johnson, and their child. They all embraced at the edge of the stands, Phelps leaning in to kiss their boy while Nicole pulled the swimmer’s head close to her.
Phelps couldn’t help but reflect on his stumbles since London, most notably another DUI arrest in 2014 that prompted him to take a whole new look at his life. He reconnected with his long-estranged father, gave up alcohol and committed himself to closing his career with a flourish.
He had retired after London, but changed his mind.
This time, Phelps insists, it really will be his final Olympics.
“He can share this with his son one day,” said Torres, who competed at the Olympics after becoming a mother. “It makes the Olympic experience a little bit different when you have a child.”
Phelps still has two more events at the trials: the 100 fly and 200 individual medley. He could swim as many as six events in Rio, counting relays.
He wasn’t the only one feeling a bit of redemption Wednesday.
Missy Franklin turned in one of the gutsiest performances of her career to earn a spot for Rio in the 200 freestyle. While Katie Ledecky romped to victory, earning a second individual event at the Olympics, Franklin rallied over the second half of the race to claim the runner-up spot.
Elsewhere, Maya DiRado did it again. She qualified for a second individual event in Rio, winning the 200-meter individual medley in 2 minutes, 9.54 seconds. The Stanford graduate also made the team in the 400 IM.
DiRado plans to retire from the sport after Rio to work at the business analyst job that awaits her in Atlanta.
Grabbing the second spot for Rio was Melanie Margalis, who touched in 2:10.11.
In men’s breaststroke, Kevin Cordes is putting on quite a show. He made a run at the world record before settling for a time of 2 minutes, 7.81 seconds in the semifinals of the 200 meters.
He’ll be the top qualifier in Thursday’s final, looking to add another individual event to his Rio itinerary. He already won the 100 breast to clinch his first trip to the Olympics.
Cordes was under world-record pace at the last turn, but eased up to save some energy for the final. He’ll likely make a run at the mark of 2:07.01, which has been held since 2012 by Japan’s Akhiro Yamaguchi.
Also, Cammile Adams advanced to the 200-meter butterfly final. She swam the top qualifying time of 2 minutes, 7.31 seconds in the semifinals.
Earlier in the day, her disqualification in the preliminaries was overturned by officials after a video review showed that she was on her stomach and not her back as she came off the race’s last turn.
Also advancing to Thursday’s final was Hali Flickinger, who was second-quickest in 2:07.79. Kelsi Worrell, who is already going to her first Olympics, advanced to the final as fourth-fastest.