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.”