MESA, Ariz.—The Arena Pro Swim Series in Mesa, Ariz., this weekend is full of firsts for Michael Phelps. Or, at least firsts since. It will be his first time swimming competitively since the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships in August 2014. It's also the first time since 2009 that he will swim the 400-meter freestyle.
Most importantly, though, Wednesday was the first time Phelps used the word "Rio" publicly. He declared his intention of competing with Team USA in the 2016 Olympics, and the meet in Mesa is his first step toward that goal.
It has been an arduous six months for the most decorated Olympian in history. Phelps was arrested for the second time on drunken driving charges on Sept. 14, 2014. Three weeks later, USA Swimming suspended him for six months. And on Dec. 19, he pled guilty to the DUI charge. His suspension from swimming expired on April 6, and although there had been some hope that he could compete in the world swimming competition in August in Kazan, Russia, he announced Wednesday that Team USA has ruled against him.
In a 40-minute news conference Wednesday, Phelps repeatedly said the last few months have been the hardest of his life. "I did more growing up in the last probably eight months than I ever have in my life, just on a lot of different levels," Phelps said. "And that could be from anything that I’ve gone through.
"Like I said, it’s been some of the most challenging times of my life. Brutal. But you know, it’s life, and I have been able to come out on a better end and have a clearer head. I don’t think I’ve ever been like this once in my life.”
Bob Bowman, Phelps's coach and probably his harshest critic, echoed the swimmer's pledges of remorse, growth and renewed passion for the sport he had dominated since 2000. Phelps believes that he has matured more out of the water than he has in it. The 29-year-old is now engaged to his "on-and-off" girlfriend of the past eight years, Nicole Johnson. He's even doing home improvement projects now. "Getting to that stage of my life," he said and chuckled.
Before the 2012 Olympics in London, Phelps had lost much of his passion and drive for swimming. He wasn't showing up to workouts. When he did, the efforts were questionable. It led to a disappointing encore performance to his record-setting 2008 games in Beijing, in which he won gold in all eight events he swam.
An Olympics that resulted in four gold medals and two silvers probably doesn't sound like a regrettable one. It shouldn't. Only 37 athletes in the history of the Olympics—winter and summer—have ever won four in a single Games, let alone accompanied by two more silvers. (That shrinks the list to 18.) But 2012 was supposed to be Phelps' spectacular follow-up to 2008. Instead, it was the first sign of a decline that would encapsulate his next three years.
But now, Phelps says, he has found his passion again.
"I feel like I’m back in high school, and even leading up to the 2008 Olympics," Phelps said. "Just how I feel in the water. I’m happy at workout. I’m smiling. I actually come to every workout, which is a surprise. It’s a change from last year. It’s because I want to be there."
Wanting to be there was only part of the battle for Phelps. After he convinced himself he could compete, he had to turn to sway Bowman, which was no easy task.
"No one is more skeptical than me," Bowman said. "When we had our last experience, it was going to be pretty hard to convince that anything was going to lead back to something that we’d be proud of. ... I actually went out and spent a day with him kind of in the middle of it. Honestly, when I went, I was skeptical. When I left there, number one, I was amazed that people are transformed like that. But I just had no doubt that he had changed in a way that was really meaningful.
"It wasn’t superficial; it wasn’t like he was just doing it because he knew he had to. It’s been that way everyday since he’s been back. And that’s the truth."
When he made his not-so-triumphant return from retirement in Mesa last year, Phelps was scheduled to swim three events, the 50- and 100-meter freestyles and the 100-meter butterfly, but only swam the butterfly and 50-meter freestyle. He scratched out of the 100-meter after finishing seventh in the 50-meter freestyle and failing to qualify for the finals.
He said he was 25 or 30 pounds overweight at the time. But he's back where he needs to be now. From Thursday through Saturday, Phelps is scheduled to swim in five events, the 100-meter butterfly, backstroke and freestyle, the 200-meter individual medley and the 400-meter freestyle, which he hasn't swam since 2009. Last year, he wouldn't have had the stamina.
Last year, he also wouldn't have ever committed to swimming like he is now. Now, he's even saying the word "Rio." This weekend will be the first test of the comeback Phelps intends to complete.