CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Michael Phelps always has a plan. Now, it’s becoming a bit more apparent what he has in mind for his comeback.
In the short term, there will be a month of intense training in the high altitude of Colorado. That will be followed by a couple of minor meets over the summer, before he competes in the two biggest events of 2014: the national championships in Southern California, then the Pan Pacific Championships in Australia. Those results will determine the US team for next year’s world championships.
Looking farther down the road, it’s clear that Phelps hopes to swim on all three relays at the 2016 Olympics, while likely limiting himself to a pair of individual events. The 100-meter butterfly would certainly be part of the mix, but it’s still up in the air what other race could be on his program. The 200 individual medley is a possibility. So is the 200 freestyle, though it doesn’t seem as likely.
For now, it’s not realistic to attempt a much larger workload. There’s Phelps’ age — he’ll be 31 by the Rio Games, his body unable to recover from multiple events as he once did. Besides, he didn’t come back to put in the kind of tortuous training that was routine during the peak of his career.
"You can only do so much," his coach, Bob Bowman, said Saturday. "If you have to swim three relays, which we hope to do, and then let’s say he swims one or two other events, then we’re already up to nine swims" over the course of a major meet, including preliminaries and semifinals.
Coming off the first victory of his comeback, a win in the 100 fly at the Charlotte Grand Prix, Phelps hustled back to his hometown of Baltimore to attend the Preakness, the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown. But, while he’s certainly got more things going on away from the pool than he did in his younger days, there should be no doubt about his commitment to the pool, according to Bowman.
If anything, Phelps is much more consistent with his training program, which wasn’t always the case in the difficult days leading up to the 2012 London Olympics, as he coped with doubts about whether he wanted to keep competing.
"I told him I’d do anything he wants to do. But we had to agree to something and stick with it," Bowman recalled. "Don’t say, `I’m going to come to 10 practices,’ then miss three weeks at a time.’"
While Phelps isn’t swimming nearly as fast as he once did, and may never get back to those lofty heights, his coach has no doubt that he can reclaim his place as one of the world’s top swimmers.
"If he couldn’t be competitive, I wouldn’t let him do it," Bowman said. "But what is `as good?’ I don’t know."
Phelps won the 100 fly at Charlotte with a time of 52.13 seconds, which was exactly what he turned in during the first meet of his comeback in Mesa, Arizona. He described it as a "respectable" effort and said it left him with plenty of areas for improvement.
"The timing of my hips and my strokes was off, so that’s something we have to work on," Phelps said.
He passed another test by getting through a grueling double in good shape, competing in the 200 freestyle during the Friday morning prelims before swimming just the fly in the evening. Bowman will be looking to push it even more at next month’s Santa Clara Grand Prix, where Phelps will take part in the entire meet and might do a double-double — two races in both the morning and the evening.
"We’ll have a better idea of what my body can handle," Phelps said.
He’s not quite as enthusiastic about the training session in Colorado, which begins May 27, but realizes that it’s a necessary step to build up the sort of endurance he needs.
He will also take part in a hastily assembled meet that Bowman helped put together at the University of Georgia in mid-July, just to give Phelps some additional racing experience during the lengthy gap between Santa Clara and the national championships in early August.
All part of the plan to make sure Phelps is good to go by the time he gets to Rio.
"He can’t come back," Bowman said, "and do something terrible."