With the 2016 Summer Olympics looming in the distance, swimmer Michael Phelps is planning to come out of retirement and compete this month for the first time since the London Games. In confirming the swimmer’s return to the pool, though, his longtime coach stopped short of saying Phelps was targeting the Rio de Janeiro Games.
“I don’t know yet. Honestly, we’re kind of taking it day by day,” said Bob Bowman, head coach at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. “I don’t think either one of us has real expectations other than to have fun, see what happens and go from there. Unlike previous years, there’s no long-term plan.”
Phelps, whose 22 medals make him the most decorated Olympian ever, is slated to hit the pool April 24-26 at the Mesa Grand Prix in Arizona, where he’ll compete in three races. Depending on how he performs after such a long layoff, the meet could mark the next step for Phelps, 28, to return to the Olympic stage.
Phelps started training with Bowman last fall, and though he has taken on a lighter workout schedule than his peak years, he has been hitting the pool five days a week. Bowman says Phelps will compete in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle races, as well as the 100-meter butterfly.
The Baltimore native entered the 2012 Games vowing that London would be his final Olympic competition. After winning six medals there, including four golds, he retired at the age of 27. At his final news conference there, Phelps said, “One of the biggest things I’ve always said to myself, I’ll never swim at the age of 30. I want to be done before I hit the age of 30. . . . I’ve been very fortunate to be able to look back at my career and be able to say I’ve been able to accomplish every goal that I’ve ever wanted to. I think at that point in your career, I think it’s just time to move on.”
Bowman said at the time he was certain Phelps was finished with competitive swimming. He had seen how expectations and fame had impacted his star pupil in the months and years leading up to the 2012 Olympics.
“Let’s be honest: He really didn’t enjoy it those last four years,” Bowman said. “Going into London, it was hard. He struggled with dedication, staying with it and he just didn’t enjoy the process very much.”
Bowman said he was shocked when Phelps called him last fall and said he wanted to resume training. Every day since, the coach says he has noticed the spark that had gone missing somewhere along the line.
“He really has the joy of training again, which he really hasn’t had in a while,” he said. “He’s very happy when he comes in. He just enjoys it. He has a good time with the guys. He does the work willingly.”
Phelps re-entered the U.S. drug-testing program last year, Bowman said, and completed the six-month waiting period, mandatory to be eligible for competition.
In retirement, Phelps was never far from the public eye, spending his summers on golf courses and fall Sundays at Baltimore Ravens games. He remained a high-earning celebrity endorser, ever-present on commercials and linked with high-profile brands such as Subway and Under Armour.
Phelps’s comeback will begin with shorter-distance races, and Bowman said that race schedule could possibly grow in time. Like many older swimmers, he will likely rely more on sheer power than endurance. While Phelps is entered in the 50-meter freestyle at the Mesa meet, he’ll likely opt for the butterfly stroke.
Phelps also has technically registered for Grand Prix meets in Charlotte in May and Santa Clara, Calif., in June, but Bowman said the swimmer won’t make a final decision on them until after he competes in Mesa. Further down the horizon are the U.S. national championships, which take place Aug. 6-10 in Irvine, Calif. That serves as the selection meet for the 2015 world championships in Kazan, Russia, which is relevant because success at the world meet ahead of an Olympic year has largely proven to be indicative of making the U.S. Olympic team.
While both swimmer and coach will certainly be watching Phelps’s times, they’ll ultimately be judging a variety of other factors coming out of Mesa in determining Phelps’s future.
“What I like is, he’s doing it for the all the right reasons,” Bowman said. “He doesn’t have to do this. His legacy is cemented no matter what happens — he’s already the greatest Olympian of all time, at least in my book. But he really has enjoyed training, so we’ll just see where we go from here.”