Michael Phelps gifted himself an early birthday present by winning the 200 metres butterfly at the US Olympic swim trials on Wednesday to punch his ticket to the Rio Summer Games.
Cheered on by a capacity crowd that included his fiancée Nicole and their infant son Boomer, Phelps, who turns 31 on Thursday, stormed to the wall in one minute, 54.84 seconds to secure a trip to his fifth consecutive Olympics.
After checking his time, the most decorated Olympian of all-time held up five fingers to the adoring crowd to signify his remarkable accomplishment.
“It’s the reason I came back, I wanted to make another Olympics,” said Phelps, who came out of retirement in 2014. “Just to be able to get five I am at a loss for words.”
“Having the opportunity to represent my country again is something I have been dreaming about a lot.”
Katie Ledecky, however, has had the same dreams and the 19-year-old qualified for her second individual event of the Rio Games by winning the women’s 200 freestyle. She secured her Rio ticket on Monday by winning the 400 freestyle.
Maya DiRado also had reason to celebrate winning the women’s 200 metres individual medley to go along with her victory in the 400 IM on Sunday.
Phelps, who has 22 Olympic medals, including 18 gold, will now head to Rio looking to reclaiming the title he won at the 2004 Athens and 2008 Beijing Games but surrendered to South African Chad le Clos at the 2012 London Olympics.
US swimming’s old guard has been under attack from a group of hungry young guns who have left many Olympic champions in their wake but Phelps left nothing to chance, the world record holder going out quick for a wire-to-wire win.
“I was just excited, I had the opportunity to make my fifth,” said Phelps, his voice cracking with emotion. “I’ve been in the sport a long time and just being able to finish how I want to is so important to me and getting on this team is what I wanted to do.”
“I didn’t feel good the first two swims, didn’t really feel good tonight but getting on the team was the most important thing and that was the only thing I had to do tonight.”
Competing in what he says are his final swims in an American pool, Phelps has made it clear that it is important that he shares his journey into retirement with his new family.
After accepting his medal, Phelps searched the darkened arena for his partner and child, joining them poolside where he hugged Nicole and placed a lingering kiss on his son’s forehead.
Phelps has trimmed back his programme for Rio, scratching from the 100 and 200 free, but will try to qualify in the 100 butterfly and 200 individual medley.
He will have little time to savour his accomplishment returning to the pool early on Thursday for the preliminary heats in the 200 IM.
Ledecky, who is rivalling Phelps for top billing at the trials, showed again why she is the dominant figure in women’s swimming, the world champion blazing to a runaway win in the 200 freestyle in 1:54.88 after a dominating display in the 400 free.
Franklin, a five-time medallist at the London Summer Games who has struggled to find her 2012 form, came home second to secure her Olympic return.