Mesa, United States – Michael Phelps plunges back into competitive swimming, unsure if his comeback will yield more Olympic glory but confident it won't diminish his past achievements.
“I just missed being back in the water,” said the 28-year-old American, who walked away from the sport without a backward glance after wrapping up his stellar Olympic career at the 2012 London Games.
Phelps isn't saying yet that this comeback is aimed at a fifth Olympic appearance at the 2016 Rio Games – nor is he ruling that out.
“I am looking forward to wherever this road takes me, and I guess the journey will start tomorrow,” a relaxed Phelps said Wednesday as he looked ahead to racing in the 100m butterfly at the Mesa Grand Prix swim meet on Thursday.
Phelps, originally entered in the 100m butterfly and 100m freestyle on Thursday, said he'll swim only the 100m fly – one of three individual events in which he still holds the world record.
He is also entered in the 50m freestyle on Friday.
Both he and coach Bob Bowman say the meeting in suburban Phoenix will serve a chance for Phelps to gauge his conditioning with the US championships – a selection meet for the 2015 World Championships – looming in August.
“I know if I really want to compete at a high level, I have to be ready by this summer,” said Phelps, who still must meet the qualifying standard for the US championships.
Phelps was last seen on a competition deck receiving the plaudits of his peers at the conclusion of swimming events in London.
In a record four straight Olympics he won 22 medals. Eighteen of those were gold, and eight of those came in his unparallelled performance at the 2008 Beijing Games.
When he departed London, Phelps said he had “achieved everything I ever wanted to do,” and he chuckled as those words were quoted back to him.
“I always have goals and have things I want to achieve, and I have things that I want to achieve now,” Phelps said.
He sounded a steelier note when asked if a comeback that falls short of Olympic gold might tarnish his reputation.
“In terms of tarnishing my career, I said it before, I'm doing this for me,” Phelps said.
“If I don't become as successful as you all think I would be or should be, and you think it tarnishes my career, then that's your own opinion.”
For himself, it's all about enjoying his second time around – a comeback that, to hear him tell it, started almost by accident when he returned to the pool to shed some pounds and get fit.
“Looking at black lines for hours on end, I don't know what made me do it, but I'm having fun,” Phelps said.
“I had to get back in shape, that was the number one thing,” added Phelps, who said he'd put on about 30 pounds (14 kg).
Perhaps not surprisingly under the guidance of Bowman, things snowballed from there.
Phelps and Bowman sat side by side on Wednesday, a familiar double-act.
“When he first came back, he was SO out of shape,” Bowman said, as Phelps interjected: “Easy, easy, sugarcoat it at least.”
Added a merciless Bowman: “It took a while to get to the point where he could do this in public.”
A few things have changed in 20 months. Phelps has split with longtime sponsor Speedo Ä he said that deal ended at the end of last year Ä and is now a “free agent” in that regard.
He's also the “old man” of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, training with a group of “young and hungry kids”.
He has a lot of ground to make up to launch a real Rio challenge, but Phelps has been there before.
A tabloid photo fracas in 2009, when a British newspaper ran a picture of him with a marijuana pipe, created an outcry that had him reconsidering his plans to continue swimming through 2012.
This time, Phelps said, the future is unclear, but the present is all good.
“I'm doing this because I want to,” Phelps said. “Nobody's forcing me to do this or that. I think for me going into 2012 it was hard, there were a lot of ups and downs and it was very challenging at times to get motivated.
“I literally can't say it enough, I'm having fun.” – Sapa-AFP