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Chasing Michael Phelps

In American swimming, there is Michael Phelps and everyone else.

Nick Walkotten falls in the latter category.

Walkotten, a senior at South Carolina, will compete in three events at the U.S. Olympic Trials that begin Sunday in Omaha, Neb.

The bad news: Phelps, who won six gold medals at the 2004 Games in Greece, is entered in each of Walkotten’s races.

The good news: The top two finishers in each event qualify for Beijing, where Phelps hopes to break Mark Spitz’s 36-year-old record of seven gold medals in a single Games. That means whoever emerges from Phelps’ wake to take second in Phelps’ nine events also will head to China in August.

Walkotten believes he has as good a chance as anyone.

“(Phelps) is the top seed, but after him I’d say it’s pretty wide open,” Walkotten said. “Pretty much any event Phelps swims, after him it’s wide open.”

Walkotten, a Michigan native who transferred from Indiana to USC last summer, is no stranger to the cutthroat nature of the Trials, where more than 1,200 swimmers compete for 52 spots on the U.S. team.

Walkotten, who was 18 at the time, advanced to the semifinals of the 100-meter butterfly at the 2004 Trials, where he swam in the lane next to Phelps in a preliminary heat. Walkotten posted the eighth-fastest time in the event, but could not duplicate the effort in the semifinals and did not qualify for the final.

The 6-foot-1 Walkotten has grown stronger and faster in the four years since, qualifying for the Trials in the 100-meter backstroke and the 100 and 200 butterfly, his best discipline.

He finished fifth in the 200 fly at the FINA Short Course World Championships (a 25-meter pool) in England in April. Gamecocks coach McGee Moody said Walkotten’s time of 1:53.02 when converted to the long-course (50-meter pool) standard would have been good for a bronze medal at the Athens Games.

“Nick’s put up some times that I’ll put up with anyone in the world right now,” Moody said.

Walkotten hopes to stay more relaxed this week than he did in 2004, when the enormousness of the meet threatened to overwhelm him.

“It’s put on a national stage by television and, essentially, a worldwide stage if you make the Olympic team, but in the grand scheme of things it’s just another swim meet,” he said. “You’ve just got to go out and do what you’ve been doing.”

What Walkotten has been doing is keeping a schedule that has left little time for nerves.

He and Nick Olson, his USC teammate and roommate, are the summer-league coaches at Hunting Creek Swim Club in lower Richland County. Walkotten also took two summer-school classes while training twice a day to prepare for Omaha.

“He definitely doesn’t seem unnerved by it,” said Olson, whose family lives in Charleston. Olson’s younger sister, Lindsey, is competing at the Olympic Trials in four events, including both butterfly events. “He seems calm.”

Following a meet Thursday in Lexington, several Hunting Creek parents presented Walkotten with a cake featuring Olympic rings — matching the tattoo Walkotten had inked on his left shoulder after he qualified for the 2004 Trials.

The tattoo is not Walkotten’s only distinguishing feature: He is one of the few swimmers who breathes to the side in the fly, a technique he could introduce to the world if he takes down Phelps (or at least grabs the second-place spot).

“You always have to consider yourself a contender,” Walkotten said. “If you don’t, then you’ve already lost.”

Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.

Area ties at swimming trials

The USC and Clemson swimmers in the Olympic Trails in Omaha, which takes place Sunday through July 6.

USC



Athlete Class Event
Megan Sparks Sophomore 100 backstroke
Andy Atzhorn Junior 200 individual medley
Kyle Cormier Senior 100, 200 freestyle; 200 individual medley
Amanda Dunnigan Senior 400 IM
Claire Thompson Sophomore 200 and 400 freestyle
Nick Walkotten Senior 100, 200 butterfly; 100 backstroke
Christy Williams Graduate 100 butterfly
Rory Grigull Freshmen 100 freestyle
Lindsay Olson Freshman 100, 200 butterfly; 200 freestyle

Clemson



Michelle Parkhurst Senior 100 backstroke
Tom Recko Junior 200 backstroke
Rachel Regone Senior 50 freestyle
Maddie Tarantolo Freshman 100 butterfly
Matt Balderston Graduate 50 freestyle
Stephen Russell Graduate 100 butterfly
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