Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps ready to start ‘journey’ in comeback meet

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Michael Phelps said he hit 20,000 golf balls in six months and gained 30 pounds in retirement.

“There was something I missed,” Phelps said Wednesday. “I just missed being back in the water.”

Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time with 22 medals, will swim competitively for the first time since the 2012 Olympics on Thursday.

He’s bearded and at a comeback meet in Mesa, Ariz., where he is scheduled to swim the 100m butterfly on Thursday and the 50m freestyle on Friday.

What are his expectations?

“Race,” Phelps said. “That’s really all I can ask for right now. I haven’t raced since the 400 medley relay in London. So, just being able to get back in that sort of mentality of competition. That’s one thing that I really love the most about it. When I was really competing in 2012 and throughout my career.”

Phelps no longer sponsored by Speedo

Phelps, 28, has not committed to making a run to the 2016 Rio Olympics, which would be his fifth Games. He said he always has goals and there are things he wants to achieve, but as his custom, would not reveal specifics.

“I guess I’m at least going with my mom [to Rio de Janeiro],” Phelps said. “Whether I’m in the pool or in the stands, I guess time will tell.”

Phelps said he was antsy to get in the pool Wednesday, for post-travel warm-ups at the Skyline Aquatic Center, including what he believed was his first massage since winning six medals, including four golds, at the London Olympics.

Phelps said at least six times in a 14-minute press conference that he’s been having fun since returning to training last year.

His first goal when he jumped back in at North Baltimore Aquatic Club was to get back in shape after getting up to 225 pounds in the year after the Olympics. He previously raced at 187 and was at 194 last week, he said.

Video: Lochte inspired by Phelps’ comeback

“I’m doing this because I want to,” he said. “Nobody’s forcing me. … For me, going into 2012, it was hard. There were a lot ups and downs. It was very challenging, at times, to get motivated. I literally can’t say it enough. I’m having fun.”

His longtime coach, Bob Bowman, said Phelps is happier in training now than before.

“When he first came back he was so out of shape, it’s hard to believe,” said Bowman, sitting next to Phelps.

“Sugarcoat it at least,” Phelps pleaded.

“So it took a while [until January] to get to a point where, OK, he could do this in public,” Bowman said.

Phelps said he at first held off on officially ending his retirement last year. Athletes have to re-enter a drug-testing pool and wait for a period before being able to compete again.

How to watch Michael Phelps’ return in Mesa

“I kind of put one foot in,” Phelps said. “Wasn’t really ready.”

What are the worst parts of the comeback? Two things. One, the pain of training at elevation in Colorado Springs. Two, his experience level compared to other North Baltimore swimmers.

“I really am the grandfather now of the group,” Phelps said. “That’s the worst part about it. I’m the old man.”

Phelps spent plenty of time playing golf in retirement. He’ll be leaving his clubs in the bag more often, for now.

“Golf is something that I will be able to do for the rest of my life,” Phelps said. “There still is a lot of work that needs to be done in that sport for me to be able to get to where I want to go, even after hitting 20,000 golf balls in six months. That will always still be there.”

Phelps’ comeback has been compared to that of Australian legend Ian Thorpe, who came out of a four-year retirement in 2011 and failed 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 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,” Phelps said. “I’m doing this because I want to come back. I enjoy being in the pool, and I enjoy being in the sport of swimming.

“I think Bob and I can do anything that we put our minds to, and that’s what we’ve done in the past. I am looking forward to wherever this road takes me. I guess the journey will start tomorrow.”

Another Michael set to make splash in Mesa

Nathan Chen lands record 5 quads for U.S. title, believes Olympic gold is possible

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KANSAS CITY — Nathan Chen wanted to put U.S. men’s figure skating back on the world stage after a seven-year medal drought. He chose this week’s U.S. Championships to try to become the first skater to land five quadruple jumps in one program.

The 17-year-old wunderkind landed all of them cleanly en route to the best performance in nationals history Sunday.

A record score (318.47 points; previous best was 274.98 under a 12-year-old judging system). A record winning margin (55.44 points; previous best was 32.71). The youngest U.S. men’s champion in 51 years.

Consider the message sent to the world.

Now, is an Olympic gold medal possible in PyeongChang in 13 months?

“I believe it’s possible, yeah,” Chen said after bringing the curtain down at the U.S. Championships on Sunday. “It’s still in the distance for me. There’s so much room I have to improve to make myself at that level, but I think it’s definitely possible.”

In terms of jumping, Chen needs no improvement. Previously one of a few men to land four quads in one program, Chen now stands alone. He landed seven quads between two programs at Sprint Center, including four different quads in the free skate.

Chen next goes to the Four Continents Championships at the PyeongChang Olympic venue next month, and then the World Championships in Helsinki in late March. No U.S. man has earned a worlds medal since Evan Lysacek‘s title in 2009. Chen can end that drought.

“We’re pushing back up to where we should be,” Chen, the youngest of five children whose parents emigrated from Beijing, said of the U.S. men after the short program. “We kind of sunk a little bit, but I think me and some of the other skaters coming up at this event will help bring the U.S. back on the map.”

Maybe others will join Chen in the future, but for now he is the only American medal contender.

He’s joined on the world championships team by Jason Brown, who attempted zero quads this week but hopes to add one or two for worlds after getting over a Dec. 16 stress fracture in his right fibula.

Back to Chen.

The Salt Lake City native who started skating at age 3 on a 2002 Olympic practice rink first put the world on notice at the Grand Prix Final in December.

That’s the second-biggest annual figure skating competition. And the most exclusive, taking the top six skaters per discipline from the fall Grand Prix season.

He struggled in the short program, falling on one quad and stepping out of the landing of the other. Cut him some slack. It was his first time skating under that kind of pressure.

But Chen dazzled in the free skate, landing all four quads for the top score that day and a silver medal overall. He bettered Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan by 10 points and world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain by 20 points. Hanyu tried four quads, falling on one. Fernandez tried two quads.

Chen came home from France and set out on improving upon that free skate by re-adding a quadruple Salchow to his quad Lutz, quad flip and two quad toe loops.

“It’s something that I knew I was capable of doing,” Chen said. “It wasn’t exactly a game-time decision [for nationals], but I prepared it, and it was something I was ready to do.”

He actually tried all five at his first two events this season but fell twice in each program. It was an audacious move to go for, given it marked Chen’s first competitions since January hip surgery that kept him off the ice for five and a half months.

“Life often tests us, it puts us through examinations, and Nathan gets all sorts of scrutiny from it, too,” his coach Rafael Arutyunyan, said recently. “But this young man walks out of all such pressing situations as the winner. He behaves like a real man.”

Chen’s timing, breaking out one season before the Olympics, just about matches his talent. He’s creating buzz not seen in U.S. men’s skating since 2010.

Which brings this to mind: Seven years ago, a 10-year-old Chen was the youngest skater at the U.S. Championships.

Chen could barely see over the boards, but he won the novice division and brought an exhibition gala crowd to its feet and sheepishly said he thought he would be at the Olympics in 2018.

A month later, American Evan Lysacek won the Vancouver Olympic title without attempting a quadruple jump, beating noted quad practitioner Yevgeny Plushenko. Chen calls Plushenko his favorite childhood skater.

Figure skating scores are of course about more than how many times one rotates in the air (from the landings of those jumps to artistry and more), but the result was slammed by some as setting the sport back. The 1998, 2002 and 2006 Olympic champions had all landed quads.

Canadian Elvis Stojko, the 1994 and 1998 Olympic silver medalist, said as much in a Yahoo Sports column titled, “The night they killed figure skating.”

U.S. men’s figure skating went dormant after Lysacek’s victory. They have not earned a world championships medal since.

At the 2014 Olympics, the top U.S. finisher was Brown in ninth. Brown did not attempt a quad, but the top eight men did. Every year from 2013 through 2016, the U.S. Championships crowned a new men’s champion. None of them have proven dependable when it comes to clean quad jumping.

“We’ve kind of not had the results we should have had over the past few years,” Chen said in a press conference Sunday, sitting next to Brown.

Meanwhile, Chen continued to rack up novice and junior titles while training ballet (“I enjoyed it more for a social aspect than an actual artistic aspect”) and playing hockey. He no longer plays hockey and cut back on the ballet.

In November 2014, Chen landed his first quadruple toe loop in competition. He’s added three more quads in the last two years working in Los Angeles under Arutyunyan, the Armenian who also coaches U.S. women’s silver and bronze medalists Ashley Wagner and Mariah Bell.

Then, last year, he became the youngest man to finish in the U.S. Championships top three since 1973 (and the first U.S. man to land four quads in one program). Chen aggravated a hip injury later that night in the exhibition gala and needed surgery. He couldn’t walk without a brace for two months. No World Championships.

Chen spent weeks away from Arutyunyan this fall, working in Michigan with Marina Zoueva, who guided the last two Olympic ice dance champions. Chen wanted to improve his artistic marks. He’s done that, and since going back to Arutyunyan around Thanksgiving has incredibly upped his jumping game as well.

Chen followed his record free skate Sunday by sitting down for an interview with the in-arena announcer. The leftover crowd applauded, and then Chan was nonchalantly asked what he was up to.

“Not much,” Chen said, “just skating on a normal sunny day.”

MORE: Gracie Gold splits with coach Frank Carroll

Gracie Gold splits with coach Frank Carroll

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KANSAS CITY — Gracie Gold is splitting with coach Frank Carroll.

The news comes a day after Gold finished a career-low sixth at the U.S. Championships and missed the world championships team.

Icenetwork.com confirmed the news, quoting Carroll. It’s unknown who Gold’s next coach will be, but she’s expected to move back to the Chicago area and/or Michigan.

“There will be a change,” Carroll said, according to Icenetwork.com. “But you can’t just say goodbye. It’s got to be worked out intelligently and legally when we get home.”

Gold later released a statement.

“I am surprised that Frank announced his decision before informing me,” Gold said. “I continue to have the utmost respect for Frank Carroll and his legacy. He took me on during a very vulnerable time, and I am forever grateful for our work together. Despite my sadness in missing this world championships, I will benefit with extra time entering the Olympic season. I plan to use it well.”

Gold had been coached by Carroll since 2013, after she left her Chicago-area coach, Alex Ouriashev, about six months before the Sochi Olympics.

She moved to Los Angeles to work with Carroll and, with Carroll, finished fourth at the 2014 Olympics and 2015 and 2016 World Championships.

Asked about a potential change of training location Saturday night, Gold said this:

“I don’t have any plans of that nature yet,” she said. “You guys will be the first to know.”

Gold’s struggles since topping the 2016 World Championships short program have been well-documented. She fell to fourth after the worlds free skate, detached from the sport in the summer and mulled sitting out the fall season.

She competed anyway, posted her worst results in four years and made a desperate call to Ouriashev and worked with him for two weeks after Christmas before returning to Carroll before nationals.

“I think we did a pretty good job together, and then we had one complete disaster at the end of last year (worlds), which to me wasn’t horrible, being fourth in the world and first in the short program,” Carroll said, according to Icenetwork.

Carroll was a longtime coach of Michelle Kwan and also coached Evan Lysacek to 2010 Olympic gold.

VIDEO: Ashley Wagner has emotional press conference moment