Michael Phelps' possible pursuit of a fifth Olympics has the swimming world abuzz, but first things first. Before Phelps could entertain thoughts of defending his 100-metre butterfly title in Brazil, there was the matter of qualifying for the national championships in Southern California in August.
The men’s 100 butterfly standard of 54.79 seconds did not figure to pose a problem for Phelps, whose personal best is the world record, 49.82. When he set the world record in the 200 butterfly in 2009, Phelps covered the first 100 meters in 52.88.
Phelps' first race in 628 days, since his butterfly leg in the gold medal-winning 4x100 medley relay at the London Olympics, attracted a sellout crowd of 1,200 at the Skyline Aquatic Centre in Mesa, Arizona.
The spectators, who roared at the sight of Phelps stepping to the block, were not the only ones excited to see what he could do. Phelps, 28, said he felt like a youngster at a summer-league meet.
“I felt like I should have my heat and lane written on my hand in case I forget it,” Phelps said, adding that the last time he felt as antsy before a race was when he was 10.
That was five years before he qualified for his first Olympics. Once he hit the water, in the last of 14 heats, it was the same as it ever was for Phelps, who swam a smooth and controlled race en route to the fastest time in the preliminaries, 52.84. “Yes, I made my national cut,” Phelps said, laughing.
The last time he had to worry about qualifying for nationals was "probably when I was 13," he added. Phelps' longtime rival Ryan Lochte was second in qualifying with a 52.94. Lochte, 29, raced in the heat before Phelps, in the same lane, number four. He was hanging onto the wall as Phelps stood on his block, soaking up the crowd's warm greeting. They engaged in a brief conversation that made Phelps laugh.
“We were both talking about how fast everybody’s going,” Phelps said, adding, “Just our normal playing around.” In the final a few hours later, Lochte turned first at the 50 and held off Phelps, posting a 51.93 to Phelps’s 52.13.
Jason Dunford, a two-time Olympian in the event from Kenya, was third at 53.08. Lochte's time was the second fastest in the world this year, behind the 51.84 by Japan's Takuro Fujii. Phelps' time equaled the fourth fastest in 2014.
In an on-deck interview with the Olympian Rowdy Gaines after the race, Lochte said he had peeked at Phelps at the turn “and almost started smiling,” which led Phelps to interject playfully, “Why? Because you were ahead?”
Speaking with reporters a few minutes later, Lochte said he was glad to have Phelps back. The return of his friend and rival is the shot in the arm Lochte said he needed to recover from a post-Olympic malaise exacerbated by a knee injury he suffered after last summer’s world championships.
“Him leaving, it kind of broke my heart a little,” Lochte said. He added: “Having Phelps back in the water helps, because it’ll go back to me and him pushing each other. Just our history between me and Phelps, any race we go up against each other it’s going to be a battle, because we don’t know how to give up. The thing that we do the best is we race.”
After his morning race, Phelps reiterated that he was enjoying swimming more than when he was winning any of his record 22 Olympic medals, including 18 gold.
"You're going to hear this word come out of my mouth a lot," he said, "but I was having fun." That was clear to everyone, starting with his longtime coach, Bob Bowman. "I could tell when he came in and I first saw him warming up that he was feeling good, he was into it," Bowman said.
On the eve of the race, Phelps made clear that fun was not his sole motivation. “I always have goals and things that I want to achieve, and I have things that I want to achieve now,” he said.
He has never been one to vocalise his goals, but presumably they go well beyond qualifying for senior nationals. “We’ll see what’s down the road,” Bowman said. “He has an opportunity if he wants to take advantage of it.”
Phelps was asked if he was worried about tarnishing his legacy with his comeback. “I’m doing this because I enjoy being in the pool, and I enjoy the sport of swimming,” he said.
“So I’m having fun with what I’m doing. I think Bob and I can do whatever we put our minds to and that’s what we’ve done in the past.”
New York Times