Michael Phelps returned to competitive swimming yesterday at a Mesa, Arizona Grand Prix meet and posted a fast 52.13 in the fly, but still fell to friendly rival Ryan Lochte who swam the race in 51.93. The times posted by the swimmers rank second and fifth in the world this year. Only Takuro Fuji of Japan has swum the 100 butterfly faster this year at a 51.84 clip earlier this month. For those curious about the state of Phelp’s conditioning, all is well. In the run up to the 2012 Olympic games, the swimmer never went faster in a Grand Prix meet in the 100 fly during his preparation for London.
Phelps won his preliminary race in a time of 52.83. Typically, elite swimmers hold back a bit in the prelims in order to swim faster in the finals. The 22 Olympic medal swimmer got off to a slow start in the final and made up ground on Lochte in the first 50 meters, then mistimed his turn to lose pace. In order to win a short 100 meter butterfly race at the highest levels of swimming, the strokes and turns must be precisely choreographed. Phelps said his turn in the finals yesterday may have been his worst ever. He hit the wall at mid-stroke. Each butterfly stroke eats up several yards of water and Phelps generally hits the wall just as his arms are coming forward. Even though Michael Phelps was fast in the fly yesterday, he will get faster as he irons out the kinks of his timing.
The reason for Phelps’ comeback are unclear other than his acknowledgement that he is doing it for himself. The swimmers forays into golf and high stakes poker over the course of his retirement are well documented. He is clearly a competitor. Given his competitive nature, the allure of competing again at the highest levels could have been the draw. He certainly will never be competing in golf at the US Open. Another reason for the comeback could be missing the routine. Even though 28 years of age is considered old for an elite swimmer, and some of his new competitive rivals could even consider him almost a father figure, Phelps could miss the routine of training. Although swim training is perhaps the biggest grind of any athletic endeavor, he has been doing it nearly his entire life. Swim training is what he knows.
Phelps makes no pronouncements regarding preparation for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Maybe he is not sure yet whether he wants to put forth the supreme effort necessary to remain a gold medal contender. Even if he does swim in Rio, we could see a scaled back version of Phelps in which he competes in fewer events. Swimming in only the 100 butterfly and perhaps a medley relay would not take the same toll on his body as the multi-event Olympics he has done previously.
Phelps has his fame and fortune. Life for him at the moment seems to be about fun. Perhaps the most fun for Michael Phelps now is to return to his roots and swim fast at the fly, leaving other swimmers to churn in his wake. Given that the number of spectators for his prelim event yesterday was unprecedented, we will all be watching.
Commentary by William Costolo