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

Kristi Yamaguchi tells Nancy Kerrigan to ‘break a leg’ on ‘Dancing with the Stars’

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Kristi Yamaguchi told Nancy Kerrigan to “break a leg” on her “Dancing with the Stars” debut, an innocent tweet between friends that generated plenty of reaction.

“So excited for you @NancyAKerrigan ! Can’t wait to see you grace that ballroom floor, break a leg! #DWTS,” was posted on Yamaguchi’s account Monday morning.

It generated more than 6,000 likes, 3,000 retweets and 1,000 replies, many referencing the horrible attack on Kerrigan before the 1994 U.S. Championships (where Kerrigan’s knee was bruised, but not broken).

The tweet conjured memories of T-shirts sold leading up to the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics with the words “Harding-Kerrigan” on the front and “Norway ’94, Break a Leg!!!” on the back, reported by major media 23 years ago.

Yamaguchi and Kerrigan shared world championships and Olympic podiums in 1991 and 1992 (Yamaguchi winning both times; Kerrigan with bronze).

They remain friends. Kerrigan said she spoke with Yamaguchi, a past “Dancing with the Stars” winner, about the experience, according to TeamUSA.org.

“I said to Kristi, ‘You’ve seen me at shows, Kris, how demanding is it?’” Kerrigan said, according to the report. “She said it’s very demanding, but you have to do it. She’s like, ‘You’ve been through worse, you have to do it, it’s such a great experience.’”

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VIDEO: Nancy Kerrigan’s first ‘Dancing with the Stars’ waltz

Pressure on Ashley Wagner at world championships

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Ashley Wagner‘s four-year plan has her peaking in 2018, not at the 2017 World Championships, but many call Wagner to carry the U.S. women at worlds in Helsinki next week.

“Next year is the year that I am, like, in it to kill,” she said. “This year is maintaining. This year is my chance to work out all of the kinks, figure out where I want to be mentally going into next year.”

Wagner, the 2016 World silver medalist, is the only skater of three American women on this year’s worlds team with prior worlds experience. She is the only one ranked higher than 20th in the world this season.

Normally, figure skating is an individual sport. But next week, the top two U.S. women’s results must add up to no greater than 13 (Wagner places third, and either U.S. champion Karen Chen or U.S. bronze medalist Mariah Bell places 10th or better, for example).

If not, the U.S. will have two rather than the maximum three women’s entries at the PyeongChang Olympics. The U.S. had three spots at four of the last five Olympics.

Anything less than three in 2018 would mean the U.S. is not keeping up with world power Russia and maybe even Canada and Japan. And it becomes that much harder for Wagner and everyone else to make the Olympic team.

“I know that I have a huge role in these three spots at these world championships,” Wagner said. “I need to set this team up as good as I possibly can, so that way the pressure’s off the other girls.”

The others are the 17-year-old Chen, the surprise winner at the U.S. Championships in January, who then placed 12th at February’s Four Continents Championships, an event that doesn’t include Europeans. Chen said she suffered from nerves, a flu and foot pain caused by broken boots at Four Continents.

And Bell, who took silver at October’s Skate America behind training partner Wagner. Bell, 20, finished sixth at Four Continents at the 2018 Olympic venue in South Korea, where she competed with an amount of pressure she had never before felt.

Of skaters entered at worlds, Bell has the 10th-best total score this season. The skater with the 12th-best total in the worlds field is more than nine points shy of Bell. Chen comes in seeded 16th.

“The tough thing about this worlds is that we have two rookies going into a very stressful event,” Wagner said. “So these two girls are in a really tough position, and I really feel for them. It’s kind of like you have to buckle up and deal with this, and that’s like your only option.”

There is reason for optimism, should Wagner put up something close to the performance of her life from last year’s worlds, where she became the first U.S. women’s medalist in a decade.

“Success in Finland is getting onto that podium,” Wagner said.

But Wagner is nearing the end of her (so far) least impressive season in probably six years. She is seeded eighth at worlds by this season’s top international scores.

She failed to qualify for December’s Grand Prix Final for the first time since 2011. She was beaten at nationals despite longtime rival Gracie Gold underperforming.

However, Wagner’s goal at nationals wasn’t to win, but to finish in the top three to make the worlds team. She called the runner-up result “perfect.” She focused the last two months on firming up the areas where she lost points.

“Even though to some on the outside looking in, it wouldn’t look like it was the most successful season for me,” Wagner said. “I think at the end of the day this season has been exactly what I needed it to be.”

The favorite in Helsinki is clearly Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva, who hasn’t lost since November 2015 and can become the first repeat world champion since Michelle Kwan in 2001.

Wagner said she hasn’t watched any of Medvedeva’s programs this season.

“The only thing that I know about is her long program music is not my favorite piece of music,” Wagner said, alluding to Medvedeva’s choice of sound from “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” a 2011 film relating to the 9/11 attacks. The music includes, at one point, the voice of George W. Bush declaring that two airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center.

But Wagner was effusive of Medvedeva, the latest in a string of Russian Olympic and world champions dating to the Sochi Olympics.

“She is a set bar that everybody is chasing after, and I think in years past that bar was always changing,” Wagner said. “Now it’s one set thing I know exactly the quality of skating I have to reach, I know exactly the technical program that I have to be able to accomplish.”

Wagner, a seasoned 25 years old, noted a key point this week. She is the only active women’s skater in her class, with her length of experience, who hasn’t taken a break.

Italian Carolina Kostner is 30, but she’s competing at worlds for the first time since 2014, following two seasons off. Japan’s three-time world champion Mao Asada is 26, but she took a season off after Sochi and this year failed to make the worlds team.

Wagner reflected on her world silver medal and her three national championships. She knows they mean nothing next week.

“I have to prove myself all over again,” she said.

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NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.