Michael Phelps really thought he was done with swimming.
He traveled the world. He worked hard on his golf game, even though he never could learn to chip. For 18 months, the 18-time Olympic gold medalist did whatever he wanted to do.
But what he found out was that swimming was not done with him. He missed it.
So Phelps is back. He will compete in two events Friday at the Charlotte Grand Prix – his second meet since he officially came out of retirement last month at age 28.
“I’m doing it to have fun and because I love it,” Phelps said. “In Mesa (Arizona, where Phelps first un-retired in April), I felt like a kid down there swimming in a summer league meet. That’s something I haven’t had in awhile.”
Phelps traditionally has made the Charlotte meet – formerly called the UltraSwim – a priority on his competition schedule this year.
“I’ve had so much great history coming to this city and swimming here,” Phelps said. “You have a lot of the national team members and people packed in the stands every night, and that makes it exciting.”
Phelps swam at the meet four straight years in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics. The last time he was in Charlotte, in May 2012, he sounded very much like a man who was counting the hours until he didn’t have to get in a pool and swim thousands of yards every day.
By then, Phelps and his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, had grown weary of each other. Phelps often didn’t answer Bowman’s texts. He sometimes blew off practices entirely. Once, he flew to Las Vegas instead of coming to a practice at the duo’s home pool in Baltimore. Bowman longed for the old Phelps, the one who cranked through every workout without complaint.
In Charlotte in 2012, Bowman said there was no way Phelps would return after the London Olympics that year. Said Bowman then: “He’s not coming back. Enough is enough. It’s been a very long road, a great road, but at some point you have to graduate. He needs to move on to something else. I need to move onto something else.”
I read Bowman and Phelps that quote Thursday. Both laughed.
“And here we are,” Bowman said.
What brought them back together, they both said, was the idea that swimming could be fun again if approached differently.
“I come in every day,” Phelps said, “and I’m joking and I’m smiling.”
Said Bowman: “The reason I sanction this activity is because he’s doing it the right way and for the right reasons. ... If he loves to swim and wants to do it, I always say, ‘Mozart should make music as long as he wants to make music.’ ... But by the same token, it should be good music.”
Mozart died at 35, so maybe that’s not the best comparison. Phelps wants to live long enough at least to shoot his age in golf, and that’s going to take awhile. Despite a high-profile televised series of lessons, he still has never broken 85 in an 18-hole round and characterizes golf as the most frustrating sport in the world.
Now Phelps is back to what he’s best at doing. He certainly looks like he is pointed toward Brazil and the 2016 Olympics – intent on increasing his all-time record total of 22 overall medals. He won’t say that’s the goal yet, but it has to be the plan if all goes well.
In Phelps’ first meet back, in April, he competed in only one serious race, finishing second to Ryan Lochte in the 100 butterfly.
Phelps will swim that event again Friday. But Lochte, who trains in Charlotte, won’t compete because he continues to struggle with a knee injury. So Phelps will be heavily favored.
Phelps also will compete in the 200 freestyle Friday. Those are his only two events this time around in Charlotte, and he won’t compete over the weekend.
In the 200 free, Phelps will not be favored. If he makes the top eight Friday morning to get into the nighttime final, it would not be a big surprise if he pulled out of the 200 free final to concentrate on winning his better event, the 100 butterfly.
While Phelps seems more laidback than he used to be, he said it still irritates him to lose.
“You think I was happy to lose in Mesa?” Phelps asked, making it obvious that he wasn’t. “Geez, I don’t care if it was my first meet back or not. I didn’t want to lose.”
But most of the time, Phelps said, he has been happy since this comeback began. Many people around the sport speculated that Phelps wouldn’t ultimately be able to stay away from swimming, and they were right. It was a version of that familiar story – you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.
Phelps thought he had closed the book on his career. Instead, he has re-opened it – answering his coach’s text messages, smiling at teammates and getting his feet wet one more time.