Michael Phelps' presence lingers at Olympic swimming trials 5 years after his last race

OMAHA, Neb. — It is hardly breaking news to announce that Michael Phelps is not at the 2021 U.S. Olympic swimming trials. He has been gone from his sport since the last Olympics, five years ago in Rio, when he won the final six of his 28 overall medals, ensuring his place in history as the most decorated Olympian of all time.

But here, on the eve of the trials, it sinks in: For the first time since a previous century, for the first time since 1996, the U.S. Olympic trials are being held without the best swimmer to ever dive into a pool.

The last time Phelps was not swimming in the U.S. trials, Bill Clinton was president — in his first term.

Phelps initially competed at the trials as a 15-year-old in 2000, becoming the youngest male swimmer to make a U.S. Olympic team in 68 years. He went on to finish fifth in the 200-meter butterfly in Sydney and was on his way.

He won eight medals at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, eight medals again (all gold) in Beijing in 2008, six in London in 2012 and the six in Rio in 2016.

But it was the promise of that transformational performance in Beijing in 2008 — going for eight golds and getting them all — that took his sport to previously unimaginable heights, turning it into primetime, must-see TV.

Ledecky posts for a photo with Michael Phelps at the 2016 U.S. Olympic swimming trials.

That year, the swimming trials moved from the small band-box venues of the past to a 17,000-seat basketball arena in downtown Omaha, with a massive temporary pool built from the ground up, then filled by the Omaha Fire Department.

Also that year, the swimming finals at the Olympics were moved to the morning in China so they could be shown in primetime the previous evening back in the United States. Why? Because of the nation’s fascination with Phelps.

That switch worked so well for NBC that it’s happening again in Tokyo, this time without Phelps, so his presence lingers long after he has left. (He is expected to come to the trials for a day or two in the next week in a new role: spectator.)

“I'm not sure that we would be who we are … without Michael Phelps,” Tim Hinchey, president and CEO of USA Swimming, said during a pre-trials press conference Friday. “I mean, he's the GOAT, he's a Hall of Famer, but ultimately for us, I wouldn't be sitting here today in front of all of you if Michael Phelps didn't do what he did for swimming in our country.”

Added Rowdy Gaines, Olympic gold medalist and NBC commentator, in an interview Saturday: “It’s weird that he’s not here. It’s surreal for sure. He’s just been such a big part of swimming for so long. He changed the sport more dramatically than any other person, not even close.”

Missing Phelps has become contagious.

“Man, Phelps, me and him,” said his longtime rival and teammate Ryan Lochte. “It's a love/hate thing with me and him when he was swimming, just because we swam basically the same events. … But Phelps, he changed the sport. He made the sport bigger than what it was.

Michael Phelps kisses his gold medal after swimming in the men's 200-meter individual medley at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

“I remember one of our first times we were hanging out and we were talking, and we were like, what is one of the things that we want to do in the sport? And we both said, we want to make swimming bigger than what it is. We want to put swimming in everyone's living room. Like 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, he did that.”

An interview didn’t go by from 2008-16 when Phelps didn’t talk about exactly that, his goal of giving his sport a bigger profile. His spectacular dominance made that happen, while catching the eye of a new generation of swimmers.

“He was the guy growing up,” said Caeleb Dressel, who is expected to be the male star of these trials. “Beijing was the first Olympics I remember watching. … It was awesome, really inspiring watching that. I never really had too many role models just within the sport itself, but of course Michael was the guy to watch.”

That said, while the swimmers here revere Phelps, they already have been without him for nearly five years of national and international competition outside of the Olympic trials and Summer Games.

“I think we feel like we’re part of a really special team and we have accomplished a lot over the past five years since Michael retired,” said Katie Ledecky, a standout in Rio who is once again expected to dominate her events at the trials. “Of course Michael has big shoes to fill, and we’re all just stepping up and enjoying it.”

Which would seem to be exactly as Phelps would want it.