Eight-time Olympic medalist Michael Phelps was four body lengths ahead of the second-place finisher as he kicked off the wall, catapulting into the last leg of the 200-meter butterfly. Those inside the Mizzou Aquatic Center on Saturday night at the Missouri Grand Prix rose to their feet as the announcer boomed over the loudspeaker, telling the crowd that Phelps was on a record-setting pace, causing a frenzy among the onlookers.
Seven other swimmers were in the pool, but there might as well have been a spotlight on Phelps, who seemed days ahead of his competitors. Cameras flashed, and fans gasped while watching the Baltimore product in lane four glide gracefully through the water. At some point, it became apparent that Phelps wasn’t competing with people. He was racing against time.
As Phelps emerged from the water after the race, he put a hand on the side of the pool, placed his goggles on his forehead and waited eagerly for the updated results. Finally, the announcer said that Phelps had set the world record for the event at 1:53.71. He had set the old record, 1:53.80, in August of last year in Victoria, British Columbia.
Raising both arms above his head, Phelps appeared more surprised than anyone else. Shaking his head in disbelief, he smiled while the noise around him reached its highest level.
“I didn’t know what to do. I was shocked,” Phelps said with a smile.
The energy inside the aquatic center was contagious, and Phelps said he could hear the crowd during the race but admitted thinking, “There’s no way I’m on a world-record pace.”
Jon Urbanchek, special assistant to the USA Swimming National Team, said that Phelps wanted to complete the first hundred meters in 55 seconds. Halfway through the race, Phelps’ time was 55.15 seconds.
Urbanchek gave credit to the announcer who got the crowd involved in the race, likely boosting Phelps’ adrenaline and alerting him that he may be doing something magical.
“It was not in the script to go that fast,” Urbanchek said.
Plenty of young swimmers were on hand to watch the event. Columbia resident Christi Bergin came with her daughter, Leigh, a member of the Rock Bridge High School swim team.
“We brought a group of teenage girls who came to drool over Michael Phelps and try to imitate Natalie Coughlin,” Bergin said. “We thought we would see some good swimming. We didn’t think we would see a world record set in Columbia, Mo.” She was growing more and more emphatic with every word.
Coughlin, a five-time Olympic medalist, was probably the second most popular swimmer behind Phelps. She was first in the 100-meter freestyle in 53.95. Even Coughlin was impressed with Phelps’ feet.
“It’s incredible,” Coughlin said, “but I’m sure he will do it again next month.”