Michael Phelps won again Friday night, another step in his quest for multiple Olympic gold medals. Natalie Coughlin won for the first time, ending a journey to reach the Olympics, one which brought a smile that showed every millimeter of her white teeth, not to mention a tear to her coach's cheek.
And Lenny Krayzelburg, the old man with the creaky shoulder, nearly upstaged them all.
Krayzelburg, the 28-year-old world record holder and defending Olympic champion in the 100-meter backstroke, swam stroke for stroke with favored Aaron Peirsol in the final of that race Friday night at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials. And while Peirsol's hand touched the wall at the Long Beach Aquatic Center first in 53.64 seconds, it was Krayzelburg's that improbably followed in 54.06 -- just four one-hundredths of a second ahead of third-place Peter Marshall -- sending the crowd into a frenzy and moving Krayzelburg to try to get a handle on his emotions.
Krayzelburg didn't win, not like Phelps did in the 200-meter freestyle or Coughlin in the 100-meter backstroke or Amanda Beard in the 100-meter breaststroke. But second place at the trials all but guarantees him a spot in the Olympics, and he showed he could compete with Peirsol, eight years his junior and without the bad shoulder that caused Krayzelburg to undergo surgery and miss last year's world championships. He hadn't retired, and it was worth it.
"If you have an opportunity to do something you love doing, you want to stick with it as long as you can," he said. "So far, I'm still enjoying it.
"Four years ago, things came a lot easier for me. At the trials and the Games, I was favored, and I dominated. But this time around, it was a lot tougher, so I had to hold back quite a bit of emotions [after the race], because it was a long journey."
Coughlin, too, found herself fighting emotions, from unbridled joy to overwhelming relief. Widely regarded as the most versatile female swimmer in the field, she battled injuries before overhauling her stroke and setting five world records.
But until she touched the wall in the 100-meter backstroke in 59.85 seconds (she is still the only woman to break one minute in the event) she had yet to make an Olympic team. So when she hugged runner-up Haley Cope -- her good friend and teammate at the University of California -- it wasn't the half-hearted embrace between competitors that sometimes follows these events. It was a hug full of history, of heart.
"Our sport is an Olympic sport, and that's all the general public really cares about, whether or not you're an Olympian or an Olympic medalist," Coughlin said. "I have world records. I have American records. But this is the first time that I'm going to be on the Olympic team, and it means a lot to me."
On the pool deck, the performance elicited a group hug among Coughlin, Cope and their coach at Cal, Teri McKeever, who emerged from the embrace with a tear streaming from underneath her dark sunglasses. "No question," McKeever said. "I couldn't help it."
"We've been hatching this little plot for a long time," Cope said, "and it's really nice to see it finally come to fruition."
Phelps, the 19-year-old from Towson who is a threat to take some seven gold medals in Athens, won his second event of the trials, overcoming a terrible start in which he was the last swimmer off the blocks to take the 200-meter freestyle in 1:46.27, beating 400-freestyle champ Klete Keller.
Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman, are still deciding whether he will swim the event at the Olympics. Thus, Friday's swim was to secure a spot on the 200-meter freestyle relay team. The top four finishers in the race -- Phelps, Keller, Peter Vanderkaay and Ryan Lochte -- made that team.
But Phelps is well aware of what would happen should he choose to swim the 200 freestyle in Athens: a marquee matchup with Ian Thorpe, the world record holder from Australia whose name is perhaps the only one in swimming bigger than Phelps.
"If we feel confident, then we'll go on with it," Phelps said of the 200 freestyle, remaining non-committal. But the competitor in him spoke as well. "I love to race the best," he said in the same breath, "and in a field like that, there would be a handful of the best 200-freestylers in the world, and the fastest of all time. It definitely would be appealing."
Friday was Phelps's most grueling day thus far. He swam in the preliminaries of the 200-meter butterfly in the morning and, just 44 minutes after the evening 200 freestyle final, he returned for the semifinals of the butterfly, where he posted the best time, 1:56.66. Former world record holder Tom Malchow was second-fastest, and Michael Raab of Rockville, who will be a senior at Virginia in the fall, will be the third-seeded swimmer in Saturday's final.
Phelps's take-on-all-comers approach -- Sunday and Monday, he will swim nine times -- differs from that of Coughlin, who significantly scaled down her program to give her a better chance in her best events. She will again be favored in the 100-meter freestyle and will swim the 50 freestyle, almost on a lark, with no expectations.
"I think it's more important to me to have two or three really good swims than five or six mediocre ones," Coughlin said.
Krayzelburg had but one event for which to prepare, and he made it count. Phelps, who has described Krayzelburg as one of his most significant influences, watched the backstroke from the warm-up pool, cheering the whole way.
"I just knew I had to lay it all on the line," Krayzelburg said. "I thought that my experience at this level, and being at this stage before, would help me. I was fortunate."