By Steve Keating
OMAHA, Nebraska (Reuters) - An eager Michael Phelps made his long-awaited appearance at the U.S. Olympic trials on Tuesday by posting the top time in the 200 metres butterfly heats that, for many fans, was the official start of the meet.
Chasing a spot on his fifth Olympic team, Phelps remains the sport's top attraction and a large crowd packed the CenturyLink Center to watch the 18-times Olympic champion compete in what he has said will be his final races in an American pool.
Phelps, racing on the third day of the eight-day meet, gave the crowd what they came to see by cruising through his heat in effortless and commanding style to clock a pedestrian one minute, 56.68 seconds and reach the evening semi-finals.
"I just wanted to swim, that was the most annoying part I think having to wait this long," said an eager Phelps, who turns 31 on Thursday. "I'm happy to get this one out of the way and just keep going."
While the time was well off his world record of 1:51.51 the manner of the victory indicated Phelps is well-prepared for another Olympic challenge.
At past trials Phelps would have had several swims under his belt by the third day but the 22-time Olympic medalist is only contesting the 200 and 100 fly, 100 freestyle and 200 individual medley in Omaha.
Coach Bob Bowman had said he did not know what to expect from his prize swimmer in Omaha but Phelps made it clear from his focused effort and comments that the Rio Olympics is his goal, even if some athletes are pulling out.
"Everyone keeps dropping off one-by-one, nobody wants to go," Phelps, an avid golfer, said when asked about his thoughts of Australian golfer Jason Day dropping out of the Rio Games over Zika fears. "Hopefully I get to go soon."
It was a star-studded morning session with golden girls Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin also taking the plunge.
Ledecky, back in the pool 12 hours after posting the third fastest swim all-time in the 400 free, clocked the top effort in the 200 free heats of 1:55.60.
The world champion was followed to the wall by new rival Leah Smith while 2012 Olympic champion Allison Schmitt was fourth quickest and Franklin, 2015 world bronze medalist, was seventh best.
It is start of a particularly busy day for Franklin who will swim a double in the even session competing in the 200 free semi-finals and 100 metres backstroke.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)