Since the greatest man to ever grace the water has been back in the pool, there have been ups and downs for the swimming and Olympic legend Michael Phelps. As expected, he has had his fair share of wins in the past six months, but unlike most of his career, he also had to endure quite a few losses, and perhaps even worse, ties. After seeing what his first in-season, championship season, and international performances held, a quick look into what has been an historic and surprising year for Phelps is in order.
Mesa Grand Prix
Lets start with Mesa, Phelps’ very first meet since the 2012 London Olympics (Over 18 months outside of competition). At the Mesa Grand Prix in April, Michael swam 3 races: the 100 Butterfly, prelims and finals, and the 50 Freestyle prelims, which he swam butterfly. Now Phelps said that he just swam the 50 Freestyle (butterfly) to get a feel for things, and considering he went 24.06, I’d say that goal was accomplished. In the 100 butterfly, things were a bit different.
Lets put this one into context. Michael Phelps is the 3-time Olympic Champion in the 100 fly (04, 08, and 12), making him the only man in history to successfully defend an Olympic event in 3 successive games. So is it safe to say there were some expectations lingering when Phelps stepped up on the blocks in Mesa? Did Phelps pull through in the clutch like he always does? Not exactly. Was this meet a successful first stop in terms of the comeback? Absolutely.
Phelps popped a 52.84 in prelims as his first swim out of retirement, which is a very solid in-season time, and even better prelims time. He met Ryan Lochte in the final that night, and when they went head-to-head, the winner ended up Lochte, his 51.93 beating out Phelps’ 52.13. We all know how much Phelps despises losing, however in my eyes this was the best possible outcome. Not only did it generate excitement for Phelps coming back to the sport, but also stirred up the old Lochte vs. Phelps discussion. Knowing Phelps, this also had to give him flashbacks of 2011 in Shanghai, where Phelps couldn’t buy a victory over Lochte. After Mesa, two things were clear: Phelps was back. And he had work to win.
Charlotte Grand Prix
Flash forward 3 weeks. Phelps has 3 more weeks of training under his belt, and Lochte has just scratched from the Charlotte Grand Prix due to injury. Phelps goes a bit slower in the morning than he did in Mesa, 53.26, but comes back at night and goes exactly the same time as he did in finals 3 weeks earlier, 52.13, this time winning the event by over half a second. If I’m Phelps, and I just went the exact same time with 3 more weeks of fine-tuning and hard work, I’m a little frustrated. However, from this we gather that Mesa wasn’t a fluke, that Phelps is really back, and that he can still throw down and win like a champ.
Santa Clara Grand Prix
Flash forward a month and a half. Team North Baltimore has spent a month at altitude training in Colorado Springs. The dust has settled from the previous Grand Prix’s, and a new and improved Phelps is set to emerge. Not only are we expecting a sub-51 100 fly from Phelps, but we have also been promised appearances in the 100 free, 200 free, and 200 IM. This marks not only Phelps’ first 200 since he’s been back in action, but also his first double, as the 100 fly and 100 free are both on day 1 of the meet. As expected, Phelps rolls through day 1 prelims in both events, and in his first final that night he sprints his way to a 48.8 100 free, a very impressive time as well as a second place finish in a loaded heat, losing only to the reigning Olympic champ in that event, Nathan Adrian. However, as he goes on to the second event in his program, we see again that the 100 fly didn’t quite go his way. In finals, dark horse Tom Shields is out first, and Phelps, in typical Phelps fashion, attempts to run him down the second 50, and is literally less than a fingernail away from doing so.
They tie. Shields and Phelps both end up going 52.11, a mere 2 one-hundredths faster than the time Phelps has already gone twice this season. Following the upset from Shields, we see Phelps’ mid distance isn’t quite what it once was, as he proceeds to race for 2nd in the 200 free, being beaten by teammate Yannick Angel, and 3rd in the 200 IM, being beaten again by teammates Conor Dwyer and Chase Kalisz. Although a disappointing meet for Phelps to say the least, going 0-3-1 in his races, his times were still very solid. Given that it was his first and only full meet schedule before nationals, honestly it did what it needed to: give him a taste of what was coming up in the next couple months.
2014 US Nationals / 2014 Pan Pac + 2015 World Champ Trials
On to Nationals. Phelps is signed up for 4 events: the 100 free, 100 fly, 100 back, and 200 IM. Nationals is his first rest meet, or at least pseudo rest meet, since coming back to swimming. To say the least, it was a surprising meet in many regards, not just for Phelps. First event, 100 free, Phelps misses the wall in finals and comes in 7th. Disappointing to be sure, but by no means is he out of the game. Second event, perhaps his signature event since being back, the 100 fly. He crushes prelims, posting a 51.17, the top time in the world. Our hopes are once again refueled that Phelps is the man he once was. However, in finals, the dark horse rides once again. Tom Shields, having won the 200 fly earlier in the meet, is out fast and with confidence, this time able to successfully hold off Phelps, beating him to the wall 51.29-51.30. I know this gave me a flashback to 2008, when Phelps was on the other side of that event, winning the race as well as his 7th gold medal of the Beijing games by the same margin. It was discouraging to see Phelps lose, no doubt, but this race meant more than that. It put Phelps on his first international team in 2 years, and in some small respect, this made the comeback even more real.
Phelps swims the 100 back, placing 6th in finals. Not too much to report there. He then swims the 200 IM, the event he and Lochte combined haven’t lost internationally since 2001. Lochte has a monster first 150, and Phelps, in typical Phelps fashion, has a monster last 50, making it a race down to the wire. In the end, Lochte wins the event by .05, taking down Phelps 1:56.50-1:56.55. Once again, we have the Phelps-Lochte rivalry at it’s finest, with Lochte edging Phelps by just enough to remind Phelps that Lochte can still bring it.
2014 Pan Pacific Championships
The final stop on this year’s journey is of course Australia for Pan Pacific Champs. The meet is held at an outdoor facility, one which is surrounded by weather in the 50’s as well as off and on rain; less than ideal conditions to compete in. Many of the times from Pan Pacs weren’t exactly what the world was expecting, and I think it’s worth noting these conditions when that’s taken into consideration. On that note, we enter Phelps’ first international meet since London, where he will end up competing in the 100 fly, 100 free, 200 IM, and 3 relays.
He performs well in the 100 free, going a 48.51, a season best for him, getting 4th behind the 2-time world champ, the defending Olympic champ, and an up-and-coming stud in that event. Later that night in the 800 free relay, he goes second, splitting the 2nd fastest time (behind Lochte) on the relay, which ends up being victorious. The next night, Phelps is able to once again exhibit his dominance, winning the 100 fly in a time 51.29. Granted, it’s most likely not the time he would have liked, but in this case a win is a win, and additionally this marks his first individual international gold of the comeback. Later that night, he leads off the 400 free relay, which is a disappointing one to watch, as our boys end up 2nd to Australia after leading 3 legs through the relay.
The last day is, in my opinion, the most exciting for two reasons, those two being each of the swims Phelps produces that day in finals. Phelps swims the 200 IM, once again getting beat by the narrowest of margins by not 1, but 2 swimmers. Kosuke Hagino of Japan touches him out 1:56.02-1:56.04 in the final heat, forcing Phelps to settle for silver. To add insult to injury, Lochte, who had only qualified for the consolation heat that morning, swims that night and goes 1:56.02, tying the time that Hagino went and again beating Phelps’ time in that event by a hair. The rivalry continues, and fire grows stronger. That night, in the 400 medley relay, the United States is able to put together a stellar relay, all four legs stepping up and destroying the competition in their respective strokes. This performance saw Phelps splitting a 50.60, faster than what he split on that relay at the Olympics two years ago. After that relay, Phelps is able to end his meet with gold, and walk away from Australia with a total of 5 medals from 6 events, 3 gold and 2 silver (1 gold short of his medal count from London).
So let’s analyze what this season means for Phelps in the years to come. For Phelps, through my eyes, I don’t think this year could have gone better.
Success Reason #1 – Phelps is in the Water
First off, he got back into the water. He stopped playing golf, put down the Reese’s minis, got off the couch and started competing again. That’s a huge first step. Just having Phelps back in the pool and back in the hunt changes everything. It means an experienced veteran for team USA, it means more generated hype for swimming than anything or anyone else could hope to produce, and it means that the best swimmer of all time will continue to add to his already unbelievable legacy.
Success Reason #2 – Phelps Won
Second, he won. Once he got back into the pool, he was able to reestablish his supremacy and prove that he can still win on a national and international scale, whether it’s individually or on a relay. After seeing what he can do this year, it is safe to say that the man himself is back in action, and he’s not going to stop anytime soon.
Success Reason #3 – Phelps Lost
Reason number three, and my personal favorite: he lost. Phelps has had his fair share of losing in his career, especially in the past few years, whether it was to Lochte in 2011, Le Clos in 2012, or just having to be a bystander in 2013. The great, perhaps the greatest, thing about Phelps is that he does not take losing lightly. Every time we have seen him lose, he comes back on a mission. Lochte whipped him around the pool in 2011; he came back in 2012 and was the winningest athlete at the Olympics. He gets beaten for the first time in 3 Olympics in the 200 fly; in the next two events he wins and becomes the first man in swimming to 3-peat not one, but two events at an Olympics. He had to sit by and watch in 2013; the next year he COMES OUT OF RETIREMENT to ensure that team USA has the best possible chance of success in the future. Has he done that? The answer seems pretty clear to me.