Don’t expect the same Michael Phelps in his return to swimming after a nearly two-year retirement.
Even if Phelps’ comeback is a success, it will be different this time around.
No more swimming seven or eight events at the Olympics or world championships. No more grueling individual medleys.
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This time, it’s about taking on fewer and shorter races than the 22-time Olympic medalist did in his prime.
At 28, Phelps is far from being too old to dive into the pool. In recent years, swimmers have successfully competed into their 30s and in the case of Dara Torres, who was 41 at her last Olympics in 2008, won medals.
Phelps will compete for the first time since the 2012 London Games at a meet in Mesa, Ariz., on April 24-26.
Bob Bowman, the swimmer’s longtime coach, told The Associated Press on Monday that Phelps is entered in three events – the 50- and 100-meter freestyles and the 100 butterfly.
”I think he’s just going to test the waters a little bit and see how it goes,” Bowman said. ”I wouldn’t say it’s a full-fledged comeback.”
Phelps’ camp is downplaying his return, which had been rumored ever since the most decorated Olympian in history returned to training last fall and re-entered the U.S. drug-testing program. His six-month waiting period to be eligible for competition ended in March.
”Since 2004, there’s been an extraordinary amount of pressure for him to perform a certain way,” Torres told the AP. ”That’s a great move that they’re downplaying it a little bit. For him, it’s probably just a training meet. He’s probably just trying to get his feel back for races.”
In Mesa, Phelps will swim 100 free and 100 fly preliminaries on the first day. Then, if he qualifies, he’ll decide which race to swim for the evening finals, Bowman said. He’ll swim the 50 free on the second day and might swim the 50 fly ”just for fun,” the coach added.
”I bet you’re going to see a little spark in him that you didn’t see in 2012,” Torres said. ”He’s going to have a lot of fun with it.”
No one is confirming Phelps has his eye on a fifth Olympics in 2016. But to resume the grind of training and drug testing, surely the Rio Games are on his radar.
Bowman said Phelps is ”pretty far” from being back in top form. He’s been training Monday through Friday with Bowman’s team at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club in his hometown.
”He’s gotten back into good shape since September,” the coach said. ”He can give a good effort and certainly not be embarrassed. He’s in enough shape to swim competitively.”
Phelps is the winningest and most decorated athlete in Olympic history. He captured 18 gold medals and 22 medals overall at the last three Summer Games. He broke Mark Spitz’s record for a single Olympics by winning eight gold medals at Beijing in 2008.
If he comes back and doesn’t dominate, Bowman said it wouldn’t tarnish Phelps’ reputation.
”His legacy is sealed,” the coach said.
Olympian Katie Ledecky agreed that Phelps has nothing to lose by diving back in.
”It’s just for his own personal kind of thing,” she said. ”He’s already done so much. Whether he adds a couple more gold medals or not, what he’s done has been so incredible, whatever he does next should be accepted by all.”
Phelps had vowed that he wouldn’t swim into his 30s. Since retiring less than two years ago, he has stayed busy with a chain of swim schools, a foundation focused on water safety and appearances on behalf of his sponsors. He devoted lots of time to golf and participated in a reality show with famed coach Hank Haney.
”I think he’s just really enjoying it,” Bowman said. ”He enjoys the training and being physically fit. He just kind of wants to see where he’s at. It’s more really for fun. It’s been nice for me to see him swim just for the joy of it really.”
Phelps has already entered the remaining Grand Prix meets in Charlotte, N.C., in May and Santa Clara, Calif., in June, although Bowman said no decision has been made on whether he will compete.
Depending on his early results, Phelps could compete in the U.S. National Championships in August in Irvine, Calif., where the team for the 2015 world championships will be selected.
”I wouldn’t say it’s 100 percent on the radar,” Bowman said. ”After Mesa, we’re going to sit down and talk about it.”