Olympic medal winner Michael Phelps prior to the Arena Pro Swim Series.
MINNEAPOLIS — With more medals than any other Olympic athlete, Michael Phelps could simply see the 2016 Games in Brazil as a bonus.
This won’t be some publicity-seeking farewell lap, though, assuming he qualifies. He still has goals.
”They are very big and they’re exciting,” Phelps said, ”and that’s why I’m still here.”
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The lead-up to the Olympics has started to get serious for the swimmers, and Phelps just might be in his best shape yet, both mentally and physically, despite turning 30 in June.
Barred from the world championships in Russia because of his second drunken-driving arrest, Phelps re-established his place as the planet’s most dominant swimmer with a turn-back-the-clock performance at the U.S. national championships in August. He posted world-best times in the 100-meter butterfly, 200-meter butterfly and 200-meter individual medley that week in San Antonio.
The headliner among a slew of stars on the slate for the first of seven Arena Pro Swim Series events, unofficially kicking off the pre-Rio race season Thursday at the University of Minnesota, Phelps is in a peaceful, confident, healthy place he hardly could have foreseen a year ago.
”I’m thrilled to be going into this year and kind of giddy to see what happens at the end,” Phelps said Wednesday after warmups, sitting next to coach Bob Bowman in a room behind the pool deck at the Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center.
Age is just a number, right?
”Anything, really, is possible,” Phelps said. ”I do believe that there’s still more in the tank, and it’s just up to Bob and I really finding out how to get there. I think we’re on the right track.”
Wearing a throwback Baltimore Orioles cap, a gray hooded sweatshirt and a thick, black beard, Phelps reflected on his first race in Minneapolis, the 1999 national championships.
”He got dead last in two events,” Bowman said, rolling his eyes. ”So he was really successful.”
Phelps let out an easy laugh. He’s been doing that more these days, since a stay at a treatment facility, the reparation of his complex relationship with his father and the renewal of his passion for the pool. He’s taking better care of his body through eating and sleeping and avoiding alcohol, looking as lean as ever. He’s the first one there for practice, after a period before the previous Olympics when Bowman could hardly count on him to show up at all.
”Going into 2012, I was just kind of going through the motions,” Phelps said.
Grumbled Bowman: ”And ’10. And ’11.”
In a revealing interview with Sports Illustrated for an article published this week, Phelps said he was in ”a dark place” where he didn’t want to be alive after the embarrassing and sobering DUI arrest in 2014.
In his session with reporters Wednesday, Phelps spoke about the support he’s seen on social media since the article emerged. He mentioned friends sending him messages, asking him how it felt to be so free.
”We are all human beings, and it’s OK to seek help if you need it,” Phelps said. ”That’s something that I hope a lot of people got out of it.”
Clearly, there’s a reason why Phelps never followed through on his vow to retire after the London games.
”It’s amazing. I can’t look five years into the future, let alone 12 when I’m 30,” said fellow U.S. team standout Katie Ledecky, recalling a meet she attended at age 6 to watch Phelps swim. She added: It’s pretty incredible that he’s still making an impact.”
Olympic champions Ledecky, Missy Franklin and long-time Phelps rival Ryan Lochte are also scheduled to swim this weekend, with nearly 50 national team members expected to race in the long-course event that runs through Saturday.
”It’s always just fun racing again after a little bit of a break,” Ledecky said. ”So it’s just fun to see everybody again and get back into racing with these swimmers.”
Nobody more so than Phelps.
”I’m not going to have a what-if in this sport,” he said. ”I’m going to walk out how I want to walk out.”