By Mike Gusatfson//Correspondent
An interesting thing happened on Day Three of the Phillips 66 National Championships: In the seconds before the men's 100m butterfly final, a packed, too-close-to-call field stepped up to the blocks. For the first time in what seems like a thousand years, Michael Phelps was not one of those finalists. There was no Phelps or his headphones. There was no Phelps or his patented down-pool stare. There was no Phelps or his double back slap, pre-race cough. And, consequently for the first time, the men's 100 meter butterfly was unpredictable. No one knew who would win. Lochte? McGill? Shields? Phillips? Someone else?
That "someone else" was Eugene Godsoe. Talk about a guy who took advantage of the Phelps-less Nationals. Already qualified for the World Championships in the 50m butterfly, Godsoe charged home, won the 100m fly, and solidified himself a spot in both the individual 100m fly and the all-important 400m medley relay.
But something equally interesting occurred to me yesterday: Ironically, not having Michael Phelps competing actually makes the event more exciting. (At least at the National level. Not sure how it will play out at Worlds.) The men's 100 meter butterfly was completely unpredictable for the first time in years. No one knew who would win. With 15 meters left to go in the race, there were five swimmers who had a chance to take home the title. No longer is this sprint butterfly an event where fans eye the middle of the pool, saying, "Right now is when Phelps wins it."
That's not a knock against The Great One. That's stating that in chaos comes excitement. This is the case for a multitude of events. Just look at what happened in the butterfly's longer event, the 200m distance. Besides die-hard swim fans, no one had heard the name "Tom Luchsinger." The 22-year-old stepped up and performed the greatest moment of his swimming life, knocking off Tyler Clary, and solidifying himself as a world contender. His support group went nuts in the stands. He had a huge smile.
These moments are what swimming is all about.
Throughout the Phelps era, we've seen The Baltimore Bullet win what seems like thousands of national championships. What we don't realize? Now that Phelps is on the sidelines, his absence gives thousands of other swimmers the opportunity to seize that moment, step up to the blocks, and make their own piece of history. His absence allows hundreds of swimmers the chance to dream. His absence means that a few swimmers -- like Godsoe and Luchsinger -- can ascend the throne and take home gold.
It's thrilling to see. And it's more exciting than ever.
Similar to March Madness, we've entered "Swim Madness." An era where major titles and rosters are up for grabs. A time when someone can step up to the blocks and make a name for themselves. A meet where futures are up for grabs. That's not to say that these swimmers couldn't defeat Phelps had he raced. After all, Phelps was defeated in the 200m butterfly -- his baby -- at the London Olympics. He's beatable. But his presence would have made victory much more difficult.
We've already seen two swimmers step up to the opportunity in Godsoe and Luchsinger. The former gets my vote for "Swimmer of the Championships." It's not easy to stare down a field that includes names like Lochte and McGill and come away victorious. It's especially not easy doing that knowing you've already punched your ticket to Barcelona. Godsoe, in that lone 100m butterfly, proved to me that he's got the steel to handle a pressure-packed 400 medley relay final. This is good for Team USA.
But the moment of the meet, at least for me, was when Rowdy Gaines asked Luchsinger, "Was it more or less difficult not having Michael Phelps in the race?" At first the question drew slight laughter from the crowd, expecting an obvious answer: That it is exceedingly more easy without Phelps. But think about it: Without Phelps, there's also more pressure to perform. There's more of a spotlight. Imagine that you've consistently played second fiddle to Michael Phelps for years, then suddenly, you're in lane 4, standing behind the blocks, thousands of eyes are upon you, spotlights shine on your cap and goggles, the hush of the crowd silences the race, the electricity in the air is so palpable you can't even breathe, and you're staring at one moment to seize what could be the greatest race of your entire life.
In a way, not having Phelps in the race is nearly as hard as having him race against you.
I realize that it's a bit anti-climatic to define a meet in terms of a swimmer not being in attendance, but that's exactly what these Nationals are. There's a new feeling on the men's side. A feeling that anything is possible. That we've begun a new chapter. That faces old and new can ascend to the top of the podium and conquer.
Welcome to Swim Madness. Anything is possible, including championships.
Watch Friday night's finals live from Indianapolis at usaswimming.org/nationals or on the Deck Pass Plus mobile app.