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Josh Prenot is making a name for himself at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials

Josh Prenot is making a name for himself at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials
Josh Prenot nearly set a world record during the 200-meter breaststroke on Thursday. (Tom Pennington / Getty Images)

A young fan stopped Josh Prenot on his way into CenturyLink Center for the U.S. Olympic swimming trials Thursday.

The girl called him Chuck. That didn't work. She tried Adam. Nope.

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"She eventually got to the correct one," Prenot said.

Whatever anonymity surrounded the 22-year-old physics major from Cal vanished a few hours later. In his final opportunity to qualify for the Olympics at these trials, Prenot surged past Kevin Cordes in the final seconds to claim the 200-meter breaststroke.

Prenot finished in 2 minutes 7.17 seconds, the second-fastest time in history, only a tenth of a second off the world record set by Japan's Akihiro Yamaguchi in 2012. Five days into the trials, Katie Ledecky is the only other swimmer to record a world-best time.

"This was my last race, my last chance to make the team," Prenot said. "I didn't feel like waiting another four years, so the pressure was on."

In the process, he joined the growing list of first-time Olympians who have transformed the face of U.S. swimming at these trials. Nine of the 16 winners so far are new to the Olympics. Their pictures are among those taped to a wall next to the room where news conferences are held at the arena. Each time swimmers qualifies, their face is added to the collection.

Yes, there are familiar pictures: Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Missy Franklin, Ledecky. But the display is a visual reminder of how different this group of swimmers will be than past editions as a new generation asserts itself.

"It's really a blend of the old and new," USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus said. "It's a very exciting time for our sport. We're now seeing the fruits of our youth program. … Those kids have been waiting their turn. They've been chasing for a long time and some of them are starting to break through."

The words came about three hours before Prenot fought back nerves in the ready room — maybe the most apprehensive he's ever been before a race.

Earlier in the week, he placed third in the 100 breaststroke. He was too aggressive in the first 100 meters in that race. He wanted to stay calm and not repeat the mistake.

"There was tons of pressure," said Prenot, whose trip to the Olympic trials in 2012 was hampered by strep throat. "I'm just trying to remind myself that I swim this race a lot, that I know how to do it."

Cordes, who previously won the 100 breaststroke, swam each of the first three legs under world record pace as the din in the arena grew.

"It was tight all the way through," he said, still panting minutes after the race ended.

Prenot tracked Cordes in front and wanted to hold off in order to go all-out in the final 75 meters. The strategy worked.

"This is by far the most perfectly I've ever put it together," Prenot said.

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In Thursday's two other finals, Olympic veterans pulled out victories.

Nathan Adrian, the defending Olympic champion in the 100 freestyle, pulled away from a deep field in the event and touched the wall in 47.72 seconds.

"The last time around [at the trials] it was the old guys like me," the 27-year-old Adrian said. "Now I'm bucking the trend a little bit."

Anthony Ervin did the same. The 35-year-old from the Santa Clarita area is the oldest male swimmer at the trials. But the age didn't show as he finished fourth in the 100 freestyle to earn a spot on the 4x100 freestyle relay in Rio de Janeiro. It will be the sprinter's fourth Olympics.

"Part of this process of being around these younger people makes me feel young," Ervin said.

Cammile Adams won the 200 butterfly in 2:06.80 after thinking a day earlier that her Olympic hopes in the event were finished.

Meet officials disqualified Adams after her preliminary heat Wednesday, saying she was on her back instead of her stomach after a turn. A review by officials that included underwater cameras quickly overturned the decision.

"I've learned about myself and how to overcome obstacles," Adams said, "and obviously yesterday was an obstacle that I never thought I would be able to overcome."

Also Thursday, Phelps and Lochte qualified for Friday's 200 individual medley finals. That will probably be the final showdown in the U.S. between the longtime rivals who have combined for 33 Olympic medals.

Prenot, meanwhile, savored the start of his Olympic career.

"I've been looking up to some of the dudes I'm competing against for my entire childhood swim career," he said. "To be able to … be considered to have a shot at winning was kind of unexpected."

But at these trials, the unexpected is becoming routine.

Twitter: @nathanfenno

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