America at Large: Michael Phelps aiming to make a big splash in Rio

Most decorated Olympian of all time over his addiction problems and targeting more gold medals

Michael Phelps was back to his dominant best at the the US Nationals in San Antonio, Texas. Photograph: Eric Gay/AP

Michael Phelps was back to his dominant best at the the US Nationals in San Antonio, Texas. Photograph: Eric Gay/AP

 

At the World Swimming Championships in Russia last Saturday, South Africa’s Chad Le Clos won the 100m butterfly in an impressive 50.56 and then took aim at somebody who wasn’t even in the pool.

Michael Phelps has been talking about how slow the butterfly events have been recently,” said Le Clos. “I just did a time he hasn’t done in four years. So he can keep quiet now.”

Eight hours later, Phelps swam away from the field in the same event at the US Nationals in Texas. After romping home in 50.46, almost a second faster than when he won gold in London in 2012, he addressed the name-calling from the young (well, 23-year-old) pretender.

“I saw the times,” said Phelps, wearing the trademark goofy grin that adorned 22 Olympic podiums, 18 of them from the top step. “I saw the comments.”

Eleven months out from Rio, the greatest swimmer in history is back and, in this latest sequel, facing down a credible, voluble challenger with a brazen line in trash-talking. More has been made at the sporting box office of much less.

“I’m just very happy that he’s back to his good form, so he can’t come out and say, ‘Oh, I haven’t been training’ or all that rubbish that he’s been talking,” said Le Clos who, like every current swimmer, once listed Phelps as his hero.

“Next year is going to be Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier.”

Second Captains

Rivalry simmering

After all those years of single-minded focus, a lifetime chasing medals, amassing records, and pushing physical boundaries, the 30-year-old may be looking for something altogether more significant than mere glory on the road to Brazil.

In the early hours of September 30th last year, Phelps was stopped for lane-jumping and driving 84 mph in a 45 mph zone in Maryland. His eyes were red and bloodshot, his speech impaired and, when an officer asked him to stand on one leg, he replied: “That’s not happening”.

A sobriety test determined he was almost twice the legal limit and, yet again, he looked like one of those wretched champions who find life beyond the arena far more difficult than anything ever encountered inside it.

A callow 19-year-old the first time he was arrested for drink-driving, Phelps was, accordingly, cut a little slack back then. Similarly, nobody (except Kellogg’s who ripped up his endorsement contract) was unduly bothered by a tabloid photo of him with a bong at a college party in 2009. But, a multi-millionaire closing in on his 30th birthday, hurtling along in a Land Rover after a few too many while playing the tables at the Horseshoe Casino was, rightly, afforded less latitude.

By the time a Baltimore judge handed down a one-year suspended sentence and 18 months probation during which he must remain drink and drug-free, Phelps had already spent 45 days in an Arizona rehab.

There, he says he confronted his problems with alcohol and a whole lot more. On the courthouse steps, flanked by family, and his close friend and sometime mentor, the former NFL linebacker Ray Lewis (no stranger to legal issues himself), he apologised and talked about how much he’d learned on “my path of recovery”.

That path, inevitably, led straight back to the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, his home since his mother brought her boy with ADHD to learn to swim at the age of seven. What had been a rather lukewarm return to competitive action before the arrest and enforced sabbatical gained serious traction once he avoided prison time. Applying himself to training with a renewed intensity, he hasn’t missed a session since, and, in perhaps another sign of growing maturity, recently announced his engagement to Nicole Johnson, a former Miss California with whom he’s had an on-again, off-again relationship for years.

Eloquent testimony

Aside from his performance in the 100m butterfly, his winning times in the 200m fly and 200m IM would also have been good enough for gold at the World Championships. Of course, he was setting these benchmarks in San Antonio rather than Kazan because USA Swimming suspended him after the latest arrest had put his future in doubt.

Now, the only doubt appears to be whether his form will persuade him to go all-in for six golds, three individual and three relay, next summer. It sounds like it might.

“This is a place we really haven’t been in a long time leading up to an Olympics,” said Phelps. “I definitely wasn’t like this leading up to 2012. It’s probably been since 2007 that it’s been like this. I can sit here and argue with you that 2007 is probably the best year of my career. It’s probably the last time I had three events like this back to back.”

Phelps watched his idol Ian Thorpe come out of retirement twice and fail to replicate the triumphs of his youth. Every sporting comeback comes freighted with the inherent danger of tampering with a legacy. On this occasion, however, the swimmer may need the pool even more than his sport needs him.

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