By Mike Gustafson//Contributor | Wednesday, January 13, 2016It was supposed to be the one automatic event he could conquer, once again, and win. The locked-up victory. The one Olympic event most people assumed, “Well, he’ll defend that event.” It was a sprint, which was geared more towards his strengths as an older swimmer. It was butterfly, his best stroke. And this past summer in the men’s 100m butterfly, it was supposed to be all Michael Phelps.
At the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, that same event also turned into the biggest upset of the year. Michael Phelps was out-touched by rising star and Singapore swimmer Joseph Schooling in the butterfly sprint. Maybe a few experts saw the upset result coming, but for the most part, mainstream swim fans assumed that Phelps could and would defend his three-time gold medal Olympic title in the 100 fly. But in that last individual race, Phelps was defeated; a new talent burst onto the international swim scene, and the world said goodbye to the Olympics’ greatest ever.
Now, the greatest ever (Phelps) is retired (this time for good?) and it’s a new Olympiad. A new generation of swimmers seek not to unseat Phelps, but also to create new legends, new superstars, new greatest-ever arguments. And sprint butterflyers the world over seek to unseat Rio’s sprint butterfly champion, Schooling. A new generation who has been inspired and motivated by yesteryear’s Phelpsian feats takes over and chases immortality:
Who will be swimming’s next, true great?
And can Schooling defend his 2016 title?
Or could someone else come along and take back the sprint butterfly Olympic title for the United States?
At this weekend’s arena Pro Swim Series at Austin, we may witness the United States’ answer. 17-year-old professional swimmer Michael Andrew competes in the 100m butterfly tonight, an event where Andrew had a strong showing at Trials. (He placed 15th.) It will be an opportunity to see one of our bright rising stars mid-season, a swimmer who has defied typical training regimes and also traded collegiate eligibility for the full-time professional swimming circuit.
Though Andrew’s best event may be the sprint breaststroke or IM, butterfly has always been one of Andrew’s strongest. Since he was 10 chasing (and breaking) Phelps’ NAG records, sprint butterfly has been a way to compare the “two Michaels” — Phelps and Andrew. Swim pundits (perhaps unfairly) compared and contrasted the two swimmers’ performances and projections, monitoring upcoming Andrew’s NAG-record setting performances since he was 10, setting up unusually high expectations for Andrew at this past summer’s Trials. Though Andrew failed to make the Olympic roster, his results were nonetheless impressive, considering his age.
Looking towards 2020, Andrew’s career takes on a new chapter. Instead of that hectic rush towards swimming greatness that Andrew has always seemed destined to become (attempting to make an Olympic roster at a young age, like Phelps did) Andrew can now assert himself slowly, with time to spare before the next Trials. He can reassess and recalibrate, and maybe, reset expectations that others’ handed to him. Though I’m sure Andrew shares those high expectations (what professional swimmer wouldn’t?) there is now time to breathe, and to just swim. One of our nation’s best-ever age group sprinters can now simply slow down, and take his time.
And, also looking ahead, besides’ Phelps 400 IM world record, there is that impossible-sounding 49.82 100 butterfly world record. Phelps set the gauntlet challenge for the next generation. His name will remain on the record books for years, if not decades.
But I can see a 17-year-old who, three-and-a-half years from today, may attempt to break that 50-point barrier. It’s a barrier only a few have ever done. And it is reserved for those destined for greatness.
Who could be the next version of “greatness”?
We may see tonight.