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

Justin Gatlin wins, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce loses at Pre Classic; American records fall

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Justin Gatlin is still the world’s fastest man — when Usain Bolt is not in the field.

Gatlin won the Prefontaine Classic 100m in a wind-aided 9.88 seconds in Eugene, Ore., on Saturday (video here), while American records fell in two women’s races.

Gatlin beat a field that included two of the other five fastest men of all time — Asafa Powell (9.94) and Tyson Gay (9.98). Canadian Andre De Grasse, the co-World bronze medalist, was last in 10.05.

Powell and fourth-place Mike Rodgers both said they didn’t hear the starter’s gun.

“Justin got such a big jump, it was too far for me to catch him,” Powell said.

Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic 100m champion who served a doping ban from 2006 to 2010, moved to 32-2 in individual sprints since the start of 2014, according to Tilastopaja.org.

The only two losses were in the only two races that also included Usain Bolt — the 100m and 200m at the 2015 World Championships. Gatlin and Bolt are not expected to race each other again until the Rio Olympics, should they both qualify at their trials.

The Pre Classic marked the biggest track meet before the U.S. Olympic Trials from July 1-10, also in Eugene.

Full Pre Classic results are here.

In other events, Keni Harrison broke the American record in the 100m hurdles by winning in 12.24 seconds (video here). Harrison matched the second-fastest time ever and was .03 off the world record set by Bulgaria’s Yordanka Donkova in 1988.

Harrison was a revelation in 2015, winning the NCAA title and finishing second at the U.S. Championships. She false started out of the World Championships semifinals Aug. 28.

She elevated to another level this year, clocking the four fastest times in the world so far.

“My coach, he puts it in mind, 12.1 [seconds], 12.1, 12.1, so that’s what I go for in practice,” Harrison said. “I didn’t feel that fast at all.”

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who could become the first three-time Olympic 100m champ in Rio, finished last in eighth place in her first 100m since Sept. 6 (video here).

She clocked 11.18 seconds, competing for the first time in any meet since April 30, recovering from a toe injury. It’s the second instance in three years Fraser-Pryce finished last in her Pre Classic race. Fraser-Pryce was actually faster Saturday than in her first 100m of 2013 and 2015, years she went on to capture World titles.

American English Gardner won in 10.81 seconds, .01 off the fastest in the world this year. Gardner was the second-fastest woman in the world last year but eliminated in the World Championships semifinals while recovering from a reported partially torn right hamstring.

“Nationals last year, I tapered and ran 10.79,” Gardner said. “Loaded, weight room, no taper, 10.81, I can’t be mad at that. I’m not even ready to really run. I haven’t even done really any speed work.”

Meanwhile, perhaps Fraser-Pryce’s biggest sprint rival ran the fastest 200m in the world this year. That’s American Tori Bowie, who was a long jumper until March 2014.

On Saturday, Bowie beat World champion Dafne Schippers of the Netherlands with a personal-best 21.99 seconds (video here).

“My coach said he is sick and tired of seeing me run 22 seconds,” Bowie, crouching on the track in exhaustion, told Lewis Johnson on NBC.

Bowie, who earned World 100m bronze in August and didn’t contest the 200m, now owns the fastest 100m and 200m times in the world this year.

Schippers, who won the 2015 World title in 21.63, was second in 22.11. The field did not include injured Olympic champion Allyson Felix.

In the 400m, Kirani James outdueled American rival LaShawn Merritt for the 12th time in 19 meetings between the last two Olympic champions. James edged Merritt, 44.22 to 44.39 (video here). South African Wayde van Niekerk, who won the 2015 World title in 43.48, was not in the field Saturday.

In the women’s 400m, Olympic champion Sanya Richards-Ross was seventh in 52.16, well off the time she needs at trials on July 3 to make her fourth Olympic team. Shaunae Miller, who took silver behind Felix at 2015 Worlds, won Saturday in 50.15.

“Definitely behind on training, so hoping a month will be enough time to get it together for trials,” said Richards-Ross, adding that she does not have any health or injury problems.

Vashti Cunningham, the 18-year-old daughter of retired NFL Pro Bowl quarterback Randall Cunningham, was fifth in the high jump. Cunningham, the U.S. and World Indoor champ, could become the youngest U.S. Olympic track and field competitor since 1976 if she finishes in the top three at trials July 3.

Jamaican Omar McLeod remained undefeated in four 110m hurdles races this year, clocking 13.06 seconds in a rout by .32 (video here). McLeod, 22, won the 2015 NCAA title for Arkansas, then went pro and finished sixth at the World Championships on Aug. 28. He’s now the clear Olympic favorite with the four fastest times in the world this year.

David Oliver, the 2013 World champion, was second behind McLeod in 13.38. Olympic champion and world-record holder Aries Merritt was fourth in 13.51, nearly nine months removed from a kidney transplant.

“It was a crappy race top to bottom, aside from Omar,” Oliver said.

Bernard Lagat, who at 41 will try to become the oldest U.S. Olympic runner of all time at trials, dropped out during the 5000m due to a cold. It was the 15th and final Pre Classic appearance for Lagat, who plans to retire later this year.

“After that first mile, I could feel like my chest was burning,” Lagat said. “I can get healthy and come back for the trials.”

World champion Christian Taylor captured the triple jump with his final leap (video here). Taylor’s 17.76-meter mark overtook countryman Will Claye‘s 17.56 meters. Taylor and Claye also went one-two at the London Olympics.

Emma Coburn broke the American record finishing third in the 3000m steeplechase (video here). Her time of 9:10.76 bettered Jenny Simpson‘s mark of 9:12:50 from 2009. Coburn also beat Simpson’s time in July 2014, but she wasn’t drug tested after that race, so it wasn’t ratified as an American record.

On Saturday, Coburn cried multiple times after her record and then made sure to get drug tested.

Boris Berian earned his first Diamond League victory in the 800m, clocking 1:44.20 against a field that didn’t include Olympic and World champion and world-record holder David Rudisha. (video here)

Berian, who was flipping burgers at a McDonald’s inside a Walmart two years ago, raced one week after being served a lawsuit by Nike for breach of a sponsorship contract after he switched from Nike to New Balance this year. Nike sponsors the Pre Classic.

French Olympic champion Renaud Lavillenie cleared 5.81 meters to win the pole vault, wearing a University of Oregon jersey. Canadian World champion Shawn Barber was second, also clearing 5.81 meters but with more misses than Lavillenie. American Sam Kendricks, who beat Lavillenie and Barber in Shanghai on May 14, was third at 5.71 meters.

U.S. Olympic medalists swept the 400m hurdles, won by London silver medalist Michael Tinsley in 48.74 (video here). He passed 2008 Olympic silver medalist Kerron Clement (48.87) after the final hurdle. Beijing Olympic bronze medalist Bershawn Jackson (49.04) took third.

Another American, Johnny Dutch, is fastest in the world this year (48.36). Dutch was not in the Pre Classic field.

The Diamond League continues in Rome on Thursday.

MORE: Rio Olympic, Paralympic medals reveal date set

Novak Djokovic plans on Olympics ‘for the moment’; Serena mulls ‘super protection’

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PARIS — Top-ranked tennis player Novak Djokovic says canceling the Olympics “is unthinkable” and, “for the moment,” he is still planning to compete at the Rio de Janiero Games, despite worries about the Zika virus.

Speaking at the French Open on Saturday, Djokovic added that people should not only be concerned about those who are going to Rio for the Olympics, but also the Brazilians themselves — “not talking about them too much.”

Earlier Saturday, the World Health Organization rejected a call from 150 health experts to consider postponing or moving the Aug. 5-21 Olympics.

Says Djokovic: “Honestly, I don’t know what to think anymore.”

The No. 1 women’s tennis player, Serena Williams, says Zika has “been on my mind” and she will have to head to Rio “super-protected, maybe.”

MORE: U.S. Olympic tennis player refuses to answer meldonium questions