DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right, big news in Olympic swimming last night. Superstar Michael Phelps qualified for a record fifth Olympic games. He's the first male American swimmer to do that. But Phelps is one of the few veterans having success so far at the U.S. swimming trials in Omaha, Neb. Some young, first-time Olympians are really stealing the show, as NPR's Tom Goldman reports.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Many swimming fans have come to Omaha to cheer the familiar - Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Missy Franklin. But as races finish and everyone looks to the jumbotron high above the pool in the CenturyLink Center, they're seeing relatively unfamiliar names with a one next to them, names like Townley Haas and Maya Dirado.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Results now official. Your Olympic trials champion in the 100 backstroke in 52:26 - Ryan Murphy.
GOLDMAN: One hundred-meter backstroke winner Ryan Murphy is one of eight swimmers so far to win at the trials and qualify for their first Olympic team. After his win, 20-year-old Murphy talked about touching the wall before two 30-somethings, including 31-year-old Matt Grevers, the reigning Olympic champion in the 100 backstroke.
RYAN MURPHY: Yeah. I mean, both those guys have either kids or kids on the way and I don't even have a girlfriend, so...
MURPHY: You know, they're definitely a lot more mature than me, but, you know, sometimes youth wins out.
GOLDMAN: At these trials, it's more than sometimes. The average age of the eight rookie winners is 21. They've been dominant in the water but a bit uncertain out of the pool. Grand old man Michael Phelps, who turns 31 today, says a few newbies have approached him with newbie questions.
MICHAEL PHELPS: Like this guy asked me today, he was like, what do you think about before you swim? And I was like, nothing.
PHELPS: He was like, are you kidding? And I was like, no, I don't think about anything.
GOLDMAN: Such is the nature of these trials that Phelps shared the spotlight last night with a 19-year-old who's expected to dominate in Rio. Katie Ledecky won the 200-meter freestyle. It was her second freestyle win in Omaha. Ledecky isn't a rookie. She won a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics, but she's the leader of this next generation. Most of the time, Ledecky competes against the clock because her opponents are too far behind. Although there was that race before the trials when competitor Leah Smith made a rare Ledecky sighting.
LEAH SMITH: I had never, like, been able to see her feet before and so that was, like, pretty exciting.
GOLDMAN: Smith caught another glimpse of Ledecky's feet in the 400 freestyle in Omaha and finished less than two seconds behind. With that effort, 21-year-old Smith qualified and became another first-time Olympian. It's a group that may be somewhat unknown now, but come August, that may change. The pressure at the trials is crushing. So many good swimmers, so few make the Olympic team. Those who do often talk about being more relaxed at the Olympics where U.S. swimmers historically are dominant.
According to a U.S. swimming official, 65 percent of the performances at the 2012 games in London were better than they were at the Olympic trials, meaning the competition in Rio may be lucky to see the bottoms of some new American feet. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Omaha.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.