Phelps downplays significance of return, even if nobody believes him

MESA, Arizona — Michael Phelps wants to tone down the rhetoric. He’s downplaying his return to competitive swimming this week at the 2014 Arena Grand Prix at Mesa. And he’s avoiding the notion that he is gearing up for a run at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

"I’m at least going (to Rio) with my mom," Phelps said Wednesday at press conference at the Skyline Aquatic Center. "Whether I’m in the pool or I’m in the stands, I guess time will tell."

Phelps insists he just missed the sport and the camaraderie of a team after dropping mostly out of sight following the 2012 London Games. He insists he needed to get back in shape after gaining almost 30 pounds from his 2012 racing weight of 187. 

"I’m having fun," he said. "That’s what I love about it the most."

But really, why else would the sport’s most decorated athlete return to the pool unless he has greater designs? 

Michael Phelps: Back in the pool

Phelps, 28, is scheduled to race in the 100-meter butterfly on Thursday and 50-meter freestyle on Friday. He announced Wednesday that he would forego the 100 freestyle.

It will be Phelps’ first competition since he won six medals, including four golds, at the 2012 Olympics in London, making him the most decorated Olympian of all-time with 22 medals. 

After he broke Mark Spitz’s record for a single Olympics by winning eight gold medals at Beijing in 2008, Phelps insisted the 2012 Olympics would be his last. He announced his official retirement after the London Games and concentrated on traveling and golf, which he took up after the 2008 Olympics, even hiring Tiger Woods’ former coach, Hank Haney.

Until last fall, Phelps swam rarely, but for the past eight months, he has been training five days a week with coach Bob Bowman at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club.   

"When he was first came back he was so out of shape it was hard to believe," Bowman said. "It took a while to get to the point where were like ‘OK, he can do this in public for somebody.’ It was a process. It is a process."

Phelps garnered attention when he questioned the United States’ 4x—100 freestyle relay team’s performance at the 2013 FINA World Championships. The French upset Team USA, winning in 3:11.18. The Americans clocked a 3:11.42.

"I think there were some things the team, our country could have done better, whether that’s with or without me," Phelps said Wednesday. "We could have swam faster than what we did there."

That assessment suggests that the competitive fires still burn in Phelps for another Olympic run, but he continually evaded that question on Wednesday.

"I’m looking forward to being here and seeing the national team and being in this environment," he said. "I know if I want to compete at a really high level I have to be ready by the summer. But it was weird just being out of the water for 18 to 20 months."

So the swimming world will have to wait on Phelps’ official announcement that he is gunning for another Olympics. It will have to wait to see if Phelps can achieve a level of success and performance that leads him down that path. And if he can’t, Phelps said he is not concerned with how this comeback bid will be perceived.

"I have things that I want to achieve now. If I don’t become as successful as you all think I would be or should be and you think it tarnishes my career then that’s your own opinion," he said. "I’m doing this because I want to come back and I enjoy being in the pool and I enjoy the sport of swimming. I am looking forward to wherever this road takes me, and I guess the journey will start (Thursday)."   

Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter