New York: Despite vows to the contrary, Michael Phelps, the most prolific medal winner in Olympic history, will return to competitive swimming after all.
His widely anticipated comeback is set to take place at the Arena Grand Prix from April 24-26 in Mesa, Arizona, a move that should make things more frenetic at work for meet director Erin Shields but should also make life easier at home.
“I have a six-year-old son who swims who has never quite understood why Michael Phelps would retire when he’s the same age as his mom,” Shields said Monday by telephone.
Shields is 30. Phelps won’t turn 29 until June, but her son Connor’s point is still well taken.
In a sports world where other great athletes are excelling at far more advanced ages, who is to begrudge Phelps, undeniably the greatest swimmer ever, from taking another plunge?
If Roger Federer can play on quite respectably at age 32, why can’t Phelps head to a fifth Olympics at age 31 and try to add a medal or two (or more) to his uniquely large collection of 22, including 18 gold?
It should be and is totally up to Phelps whether he wants to risk further denting his aura of invincibility. He has tried golf and failed (so far) to make Tiger Woods or Bubba Watson nervous. He presumably has had downtime and free time aplenty.
In the pool, he has very little, if anything, left to prove, which might not be best in a sport where the training is arduous and repetitive enough to require extreme motivation.
What is clear is that any swimming race is still much more interesting with him in it, and the surprise, considering the banality of sporting and swimming comebacks at this stage, is that Phelps ever bothered to retire officially in the first place no matter how much he thought he meant it.
“Michael’s younger than LeBron James; are we telling LeBron James that he should stop because he’s won two NBA titles?” said Rowdy Gaines, the former Olympic swimming champion who will do television commentary for Universal Sports in Mesa this month. “Michael’s 9 or 10 years younger than Peyton Manning, and then you have a guy like Manny Pacquiao who I just saw fight this weekend. He’s 35, and he’s getting beat up. It’s not like Michael is getting beat up. He’s still near his prime.
“Now is he going to go out and win eight gold medals? No. Is he going to go out and win five or six? Probably not. But he can still make an impact on the sport. Whatever he swims, he’s the guy to beat, and that says a lot.”
For now, it remains unclear whether Phelps will swim at the next Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 (or whether the Brazilians will even finish the pool on time).
Bob Bowman, Phelps’ longtime coach, is calling this month’s race in Mesa a soft comeback and making no promises about the future. Phelps is expected to swim at least the 50 and 100 freestyle and the 100 butterfly in Mesa. The shorter distances seem his way forward, with the 200 fly and the 200 free certainly still in his wheelhouse. But if Phelps struggles by his standards or finds that something elemental is missing, it is certainly possible that he will beat a quick retreat.
Swimming has provided plenty of cautionary comeback tales in recent years, few more dissuasive than that of Ian Thorpe, Phelps’ one-time freestyle rival, who tried and failed to make the Australian Olympic team for the 2012 Olympics in London and has since struggled with a series of personal and health problems.
But Thorpe, 31, spent nearly five years away from competition before making his return before London. Phelps has not yet been away from racing for two years and resumed swimming on a regular basis last year in Baltimore even if it was not yet clear then that he would resume competing.
“Of course it was tough coming back for Ian, but I think Michael is a different story,” Pieter van den Hoogenband, the Dutch champion and another of Phelps’ former rivals, said Monday in a telephone interview. “When I talked to Michael in Barcelona last summer during the world championships, I could feel he was still so passionate and still so into the world of swimming, and I think he still has the mindset and the body and a very good team of coaches and colleagues around him. So they will help him to get himself into good shape, and he’s still I think fast enough and young enough — that’s very important — to win a couple of Olympic medals in Rio.”
Gaines also saw Phelps in Barcelona, where he paid a visit to the NBC commentary booth during the 400 freestyle relay, in which the United States finished second behind France.
“I was reading his body language and hearing his salty language,” Gaines said. “He wasn’t singling out anybody for criticism, but he was saying, ‘I could have done that right now without even training.’ He was in the booth swimming the race with those guys, and he was genuinely ticked off, and I think he feels like he can help, especially when it comes to the relays.”
What helps is that Phelps has had a good long look at what else life has to offer a superstar still very much in the prime of life. What also presumably helps is that he still has Bowman in his corner and has had a long look in training at the young Frenchman Yannick Agnel, another remarkable swimming polymath who is training under Bowman at Meadowbrook Aquatic Center.
“So Michael knows exactly what is the benchmark nowadays in swimming,” Van den Hoogenband said. “If he is not good enough during the training sessions with Yannick, he knows OK, ‘Now, my time is over, and I have to step aside and make way for the next generation.’ But if he can train with Yannick and he is still at the same level, he’ll be able with his mentality and talent to win even the Olympic gold.”
Much can of course happen on the straight lanes and winding roads to Rio, but truly, who wouldn’t prefer to watch a swimming race with Phelps in it rather than him watching it — frustrated — from a commentary booth?
Erin Shields certainly knows what Connor prefers.
“It’s really exciting,” she said, “to know my son will get a chance to see him in action.”