Michael Phelps made history Wednesday night, then took a detour.
The most decorated Olympian of all time accepted his medal for winning the 200-meter butterfly at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials as the sold-out CenturyLink Center crowd roared approval. He struggled for the right words to describe what it meant to make the Olympic team for the fifth time.
Then Phelps veered toward the stands. A spotlight followed in the darkened arena. This wasn't part of the carefully choreographed plan at the trials, an event that's scheduled down to the minute. Phelps embraced his fiancee, Nicole Johnson, and kissed their 2-month-old son, Boomer and, for a moment, appeared lost in his own world.
"It's just special," Phelps said, "being able to have [our] first born being able to be part of the journey that we're on right now."
Phelps, who turns 31 on Thursday, pursued a short-lived retirement following the London Olympics. Even after a career jammed with world records and 18 Olympic gold medals, he couldn't resist chasing one last Games.
Phelps talks a lot these days about the changes in his life, particularly over the last year. He's happier. Calmer. Healthier. Training harder. He's in a better place, inside and outside the pool.
"I'm doing this because I wanted to," Phelps said. "And thinking about the ups and the downs we've gone through in and out of the pool to get to this point ... I think things are probably going to hit me a lot more emotionally now than what they would have in the past because I'm enjoying the moment."
He added: "The pressure is off."
The words are different than those from the mercurial 15-year-old who first qualified for the Olympics in 2000 — also in the 200 butterfly.
Bob Bowman, who has coached Phelps since he was 11, was asked if he remembered that youngster.
"No way," Bowman said.
The race back to the Olympics — Phelps tied Dara Torres for the most appearances by a U.S. swimmer — wasn't easy. Phelps finished in 1 minute, 54.84 seconds. That held off a late charge by Huntington Beach's Tom Shields, who placed second in 1:55.81.
"That was probably harder than any swim I've had in my life," Phelps said. "I didn't feel good the first two [preliminary and semifinal] swims and didn't really feel that good tonight, but getting on the team was the most important thing."
He doesn't hesitate to criticize his performances — the last 50 meters were "awful" and "by no means am I happy" with the time.
But even on a self-described off day, Phelps, who set the world record in the event in 2009, is better than almost anyone else in the world.
Shields, for one, had a prime view of Phelps' feet during the race.
"I'm still trying to figure out how to not have that happen," the 24-year-old Shields said. "He's very consistent. You know where he's going to be."
The same could be said of Katie Ledecky. The prodigy won her second event of the the trials Wednesday. Normally a distance specialist, Ledecky captured the 200 freestyle in 1:54.88.
Her strategy wasn't complicated.
"Just go out fast and bring it home fast," Ledecky said.
The victory wasn't a surprise. But two swimmers behind Ledecky provided more drama. Missy Franklin, in the midst of a difficult meet after placing seventh in the 100 backstroke Tuesday, surged to a second-place finish.
"This is probably the most proud race I've ever swam in my career," Franklin said. "I realized that my job here, it's not to make the Olympic team. It's not to defend anything. It's to swim well."
But the four-time Olympic gold medalist looked relieved to finally be on the team.
Earlier Wednesday, Allison Schmitt, who won gold in the event at the London Olympics and holds the American record in the event, texted Franklin. Schmitt reminded her friend that they simply needed to have fun during the race.
Schmitt, close friends with Phelps, placed fourth. That secured a spot on the 800 freestyle relay at the Rio de Janeiro games.
"It's been a tough four years," Schmitt said. "I don't remember the last time I had happy tears. … I honestly didn't think I'd be standing here at the Olympic trials again."
In Wednesday's third final, Maya DiRado took the 200 individual medley for her second trials win.
But Phelps remained the focus.
Torres told him "welcome to the club" of five-time Olympians. Bowman cried during the medal ceremony. And Phelps talked about going faster.
"It's been a … long time since I've had a best time," he said. "I would like to have maybe one before I retire. I hope."