Michael Phelps

Can Michael Phelps excel in comeback?

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Michael Phelps is slated to return to competition next week for the first time in nearly two years will, of course, be at least slightly different from the Phelps who won six medals at his last meet, the 2012 Olympics.

He turns 29 on June 30. Phelps has been training, lightly by his standards, for much of the last year, but who knows what his form will be when he dives in at the Mesa Grand Prix in Arizona next weekend.

Or how long it will take the 22-time Olympic medalist to reach a satisfactory level to continue competing with an eye on the Rio Olympics in 2016. Those would be his fifth Games, the same number as Dara Torres, whom Phelps called “mom” at his first Olympics in 2000. He was 15. She was 33.

“We have discussed a long-term plan in general terms, but until he swims in a meet we’re not going to know,” Phelps’ longtime coach, Bob Bowman, told the Chicago Tribune on Monday. “Will he be eighth? Second? Sixteenth?

“I think he certainly won’t be embarrassed swimming in [Mesa], and I think he will be competitive.  The difference is he is doing half the training he used to.”

Doubters can bring up Ian Thorpe, the man whom Phelps usurped as the world’s greatest swimmer a decade ago. The Australian emerged from a four-year retirement in 2011 and flopped, failing to make the 2012 Olympic Team.

Thorpe, like Phelps, was 28 when he came back, but he had barely competed since the 2004 Olympics. This is a vastly different scenario.

“If [Phelps] decides to go for Rio, he will definitely win more medals,” NBC Olympics swimming analyst Rowdy Gaines said on “TODAY” on Tuesday. “There’s no question in my mind. He will win a lot more medals.”

Phelps is expected to swim short distances, at least at the outset, in this go-round — the 50m and 100m freestyles and the 100m butterfly, perhaps, in Mesa. The 200m free could also be in play later if speculating about the Olympics, given it’s a relay distance.

The prospect of adding to his record Olympic medal count is twofold. The U.S. has won a medal in every men’s relay since the boycotted 1980 Moscow Games. Generally, the top six in the 100m free and the 200m free at the U.S. Olympic Trials make those respective relays.

Individually, it’s tougher. The U.S. has been improving in the sprint freestyle events, and shorter distances are trickier to predict.

Nathan Adrian, 25, is the reigning Olympic champion and world bronze medalist in the 100m free. Jimmy Feigen, 24, won 100m free silver at the 2013 World Championships. Cullen Jones and Anthony Ervin are also contenders, though both are older than Phelps. Internationally, France, Brazil and Australia pose threats.

Phelps won three straight Olympic titles in the 100m butterfly, an event with a less crowded field of Americans. Ryan Lochte was the only U.S. man to make the 100m fly final at the 2013 World Championships, but he has little history of swimming it at major meets.

The 100m fly king in Phelps’ absence has been South Africa’s Chad le Clos, who is merely 22. Le Clos won the 2013 world title in a national record 51.06, bettering Phelps’ 51.21 from the 2012 Olympics.

In Phelps’ corner is a Frenchman. Olympic 200m freestyle champion Yannick Agnel has been training in Baltimore and under Bowman since last year.

“So Michael knows exactly what is the benchmark nowadays in swimming,” Dutch legend Pieter Van den Hoogenband told The New York Times. “If he is not good enough during the training sessions with Yannick, he knows OK, ‘Now, my time is over, and I have to step aside and make way for the next generation.’ But if he can train with Yannick and he is still at the same level, he’ll be able with his mentality and talent to win even the Olympic gold.”

Photos: How Michael Phelps spent his retirement

Laurie Hernandez explains wink, nervous Olympic moments in book excerpt

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 09:  Lauren Hernandez of the United States prepares ro compete on the balance beam during the Artistic Gymnastics Women's Team Final on Day 4 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Rio Olympic Arena on August 9, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Two of Laurie Hernandez‘s most memorable moments in Rio were mouthing “I got this” before her team final balance beam routine and winking at judges before her floor exercise.

The former became the title of her book, “I Got This: To Gold and Beyond,” due out Tuesday. The latter she also details in the book’s pages.

Hernandez, the first U.S. female Olympian born in the 2000s, is the third member of the Final Five to pen a book.

Hernandez took team gold and balance beam silver in Rio, becoming the youngest individual U.S. Olympic gymnastics medalist since 1992 (Shannon Miller).

She then became the youngest winner of “Dancing with the Stars,” which she also reviews in the book.

Here’s an excerpt from “I Got This,” where Hernandez looks at her Rio Olympic experience:

“The amazing thing about the Olympics is that you feel so many different emotions in the span of a few days, and they are all intense. So it was nice to have at least one totally playful moment. For me that moment happened during my floor routine in the team finals, just before we won. I spontaneously winked at one of the judges and everyone there, and at home, seemed to love that. But honestly I don’t know what came over me. Right before I went on, I was so nervous I looked at the team and said, “Guys, I’m so scared. It’s the last event, what if I mess up?” Any time you are competing as a team you have those worries—I know I had certainly felt the same way at international meets. Thankfully, the girls assured me that wasn’t going to happen. They said, “No, no, no, you’re fine. Don’t worry about it. We’re a few points ahead, so just go out there and enjoy yourself.”

I made my way toward the warm-up area. I was feeling pretty good by then, so I stood to the side and took a deep breath. I wanted to soak in everything around me, because it was definitely a major moment. I scanned the cheering crowd and all I saw was a sea of green. Brazil’s colors are yellow, blue, and green, and the entire arena was decked out in green. The mats were green, the logos were green, everything around me was green, and for a split second, I found it kind of intimidating because in the United States, all our equipment is blue. Even a seemingly small difference like that can be jarring.

Then all of a sudden I heard this beep. It was coming from the little TV screen in the warm-up area that lists your name, your country, and the event you’re about to compete in. My screen read Lauren Hernandez, USA, Floor Exercise. After I heard the beep, the screen switched to GO, which meant I had to go salute the judges and begin.

When I stood up on the floor, I could see one of the out-of-bounds judges in my line of vision. That is the judge who checks to make sure your foot never crosses over the white line. Well, I looked straight at her and suddenly felt this surge of confidence to wink. After I did that, I went on to do an amazing routine. When it was done, I was so proud of myself! Later, a woman came up to me while I was watching Simone and Aly compete in their all-around finals and she said, “Wow, I just want you to know that when you winked at the judge, it really worked.” I didn’t know how to respond, so I just said, “Thank you. That’s very nice of you to say.” That’s when she told me she was the out-of-bounds judge! All I could say was “Oh my goodness.”

When I think back on the Olympics, there were only two times I was anxious for myself or for one of my teammates. In my beam routine, I always find the triple series (or what is called a flight series) a little nerve-racking. That’s when I have to perform three moves in a row backward: I do a back handspring, followed by a layout step-out, followed by another layout step-out. I had a good feeling before I was going to compete that I would hit it, but it’s something I’m always slightly worried about in the back of my mind. The other thing that had me holding my breath was Aly’s first tumble, because she does so much in that pass. I don’t think she’s ever worried about it, because in her head she’s doing everything she needs to do to execute it beautifully. But as you watch, there’s a lot going on, so you fear something might go wrong. She basically does a round off, a backward one-and-a-half twist, and then she steps out of that to connect to another round-off, a back handspring, and then she does this spring called a double Arabian and basically goes up in the air to do a half turn and double front flip connected to a front layout, which is a front flip with a straight leg where her whole body is open. It’s incredible! It’s so insane. It wows me every single time.”

MORE: Hernandez discusses her 2017 plans

Laurie Hernandez

How to watch U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Thursday

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U.S. Figure Skating Championships coverage begins Thursday, live on NBCSN and streamed on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app, starting at 5:30 p.m. ET.

The pairs and women’s short programs are scheduled in Kansas City.

The NBC Sports All-Access page will provide live scoring and more all week.

Pairs short program
5:30-7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN
STREAM LINK | SKATE ORDER | PREVIEW

Women’s short program
9:30 p.m.-midnight ET, NBCSN
STREAM LINK | SKATE ORDER | PREVIEW

In pairs, defending champions Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea take on a field including two-time Skate America silver medalists Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier as well as 2014 Olympians Marissa Castelli and Nathan Bartholomay, each skating with different partners since Sochi.

The women are headlined by three-time U.S. champion Ashley Wagner, seeking to become the oldest U.S. women’s champion in 90 years at age 25.

She could be challenged by defending champion Gracie Gold, 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu and Skate America silver medalist Mariah Bell.

The pairs and women’s free skates will be Saturday, on NBC and streamed on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app. A full broadcast schedule is here.

MORE: Gracie Gold forgives herself, eight months after worlds failure