MESA, Ariz.— After 234 days, one DUI, six months of suspension and countless hours of training, Michael Phelps returned to competitive swimming on Thursday at the Arena Pro Swim Series in Mesa, Ariz.
The 18-time Olympic gold medalist came back with a bang. Amidst supportive cheers from the crowd, Phelps swam the 100-meter butterfly in 52.38 seconds, finishing in first place and ahead of longtime rival and Team USA teammate Ryan Lochte (53.11).
“It was weird racing again,” Phelps said. “It had been so long.”
Phelps bested his qualifying time (52.92) by more than half a second, but he failed to match his world record time of 49.82 he swam in 2009.
That’s not where Phelps or coach Bob Bowman expects him to be, though. They understand these are his first races after an extended break. Phelps and Bowman claim this year will be different than last, though, when Phelps swam 52s but didn’t see any improvement, as he was returning from retirement.
“One of the reasons 52(.38 seconds) is OK here is because he is actually training really hard,” Bowman said. “We’re trying to do it the right way.”
“I kind of feel like at every meet last year, I was kind of tapered,” Phelps said. “Because I really wasn’t doing that much work. … Being able to go 52.3 tonight, it’s fine. … I’ll hopefully be able to build and get faster and fast throughout each Grand Prix. Each Grand Prix last year, I pretty much went the same time in every single one.”
Phelps pulled away early and led Thursday’s final at the 50-meter mark, but Lochte closed ground late. In the end, the world record holder was able to hold off Lochte’s advances.
After the race, Phelps said he’s to the point where he’s focusing on the little things. “Probably some things to fix,” he said. “But … I think it’s a good starting point.”
Lochte and Phelps have a long history, both as teammates on the international stage and rivals, domestically.
“I love racing him,” Lochte said. “He’s the hardest racer in the world. … He’s the backbone of Team USA.”
After the 2012 Beijing Olympics, Phelps was adamant about never swimming again. But Lochte didn’t believe a second of it. The two made a bet, the terms of which Lochte wouldn’t disclose.
“I called him a liar,” Lochte said. To which, Phelps responded, “No, I won’t (swim again).” Lochte, confident as always, was able to cash in in 2014 and was bragging on Thursday.
Phelps’s qualifying time of 52.92 was the second best 100-meter butterfly in Mesa, only to be topped by his time in the finals. But it was the third slowest he has swam the race over 14 attempts in the last year. In his return from retirement last year in Mesa, he swam 52.84 and 52.13.
Phelps said it’s key for him to continue training in his 200-meter races because that’s where his stroke originates from and his goal is to get back down to 16 strokes per lap. On Thursday, he was at 17.
“I can say my stroke didn’t feel good,” he admitted. “I probably needed one less stroke, I needed to kick more, my break on my start was bad. I can pick apart the race 100 different ways. But just getting in the water and racing was something I was looking forward to.”
Phelps also addressed comments made by Cornel Marculescu, the executive director of FINA.
Although Phelps confirmed Wednesday that USA Swimming would uphold its ban on him competing at the World Championships in Russia, Marculescu told the Associated Press that Phelps could potentially receive a special invite, the equivalent of an at-large bid.
“Ole’ Cornel,” Phelps said. “I don’t even know. … This is news to me. I heard it walking down here [to his media session]. … Bob and I’s plan is to prepare ourselves for nationals.”
Phelps thanked Marculescu for his support but said his focus was on the meet in Mesa. He is entered in five events, with the 100-meter backstroke and 400-meter freestyle ahead on Friday and the 100-meter freestyle and 200-meter individual medley on Saturday.
Phelps hasn’t competed in the 400-meter freestyle since 2009 but he and Bowman confirmed that he will, indeed, complete the race. Phelps was the one who first brought up the idea.
“Let’s swim the 400 free,” Phelps said. “Just to see how much I can do, how much I can hang.”
When asked about his expectations for the race, Bowman interrupted from the back of the room, “Keep ‘em low.” “It’s the key to success,” he added with a laugh.
But the reinvigorated Phelps said he is excited to swim the race—just as he is seemingly excited about everything else these days.