Michael Phelps reflects on sideline role during Olympic trials

Michael Phelps speaks during a conference before the CES tech show in Las Vegas.
Michael Phelps speaks during a conference before the CES tech show in Las Vegas. The retired swimmer has taken on a new role ahead of the 2020 Olympics.
(John Locher/Associated Press)

Michael Phelps seemed to be everywhere.

In the last week, highlights from his history-making Olympic races played on the giant scoreboard televisions at the CHI Health Center. Phelps told the crowd gathered for the U.S. Olympic swimming trials how odd it felt to not to be competing. He sprinted onto the pool deck to hug friend Chase Kalisz after he won the 400-meter individual medley. Phelps joined the NBC broadcast of the event with Mike Tirico and Rowdy Gaines for a segment.

The only place you couldn’t find Phelps at the eight-day event that ends Sunday was in the pool.

“For me, it was walking onto the pool deck and I felt chills running up my body,” Phelps said during a brief news conference held via video. “I almost had to stop and just let everything sink in because it was semi-overwhelming. I had to take a lot of deep breaths. I felt the tears pretty much start coming up.”


Michael Phelps answers all on first day of retirement

Aug. 5, 2012

He retired after the Rio de Janeiro Games as the most decorated Olympian of all-time, with 28 medals, 23 of them gold. Even as American records fall and a new generation of swimmers establish themselves at the first trials without Phelps since 1996, he continues to cast a long shadow.

“He changed the sport,” said Ryan Lochte, the 12-time Olympic medalist. “He made the sport bigger than what it was. … We want to put swimming in everyone’s living room. When you turn on the TV, you see the NBA. Why can’t we have that for swimming? We want to make swimming bigger, and Phelps definitely did that.”

Added Keenan Robinson, Phelps’ longtime strength and conditioning coach who is the director of sports medicine and science for USA Swimming: “He made it cool to swim.”

The influence extends far beyond the video of Phelps, his wife Nicole and their 5-year-old son, Boomer, watching the trials. It’s in the text messages of encouragement Phelps sends to up-and-coming swimmers and established stars. Their excitement over Phelps checking in during the trials. Their stories of the first time they watched him race. Their long-ago photos posing with Phelps as awestruck children.

He has 23 Olympic medals and a line of swim gear emblazoned with his initials.

Aug. 8, 2016

“I know his ears are always open, anything I have to rant about, complain about,” said Caeleb Dressel, one of the standouts for the U.S. men’s team who will contend for multiple gold medals at the Tokyo Games next month. “I came out swinging. It was like the middle of quarantine. I was frustrated with a lot of stuff, and I sent him this long text, and I think he just said, ‘What the heck?’

“He’s always willing to offer me advice, always willing to lend a hand. I just wish I had … a little bit more time to compete with him.”


After setting an American record in the 100 breaststroke and earning his first Olympic berth Monday, the conversation in Michael Andrew’s post-race news conference turned to Phelps.

“It’s cool that he’s been intentional with reaching out to me and supporting me and encouraging where I’m at,” Andrew said. “For me it’s not something I ever expected, but I’m super grateful to know … when the greatest of all-time acknowledged that you are in a position to now carry the baton to represent the country that they have done so well in doing so, it’s just a huge honor.”

Despite the legend’s sprawling presence — in the stands, in memories, in record books — swimming is already well into its post-Phelps era. The sport is walking a line between acknowledging his titanic, lingering impact while moving forward with new names, new moments, new records.

Tim Hinchey, USA Swimming’s president and CEO, likened it to the NBA after Michael Jordan retired.

He left it all in the pool, every inch of his lean and bruised body, every dazzling and dark moment of his career, all swirling behind him in the roiling waters of the Olympic Aquatics Center.

Aug. 13, 2016

“People asked what’s going to happen, and then obviously LeBron [James] shows up and then Stephen Curry and then you name it,” Hinchey said. “There’s just an immense amount of talent, and I think we’re very blessed in swimming that men and women, especially the women’s team right now, the young stars continue to come. … We’re going to be OK, and we tip our hat to Michael for putting us in the spotlight.”

Those stars revolve around five-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky, of course, and others like Dressel, Simone Manuel, Ryan Murphy, Lilly King and a host of up-and-coming swimmers.


“I don’t know why we wouldn’t think it wasn’t going to be great just because Michael’s not here,” said King, the defending Olympic gold medalist in the 100 breaststroke.

Phelps appeared relaxed, jovial, grateful. The 35-year-old doesn’t miss the pre-race nerves, the warm-up and warm-down routines, the unyielding pressure.

“This is all I know and all I’ve really understood,” Phelps said of the sport. “I almost feel like for me body-wise … I’m almost ready to go put me out there and let me do a time trial.”

But this time, he stayed out of the pool.