Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps still fueled to win going into second comeback meet

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Michael Phelps said he felt like a kid in April, when he swam in his first meet since the 2012 Olympics and uttered the word “fun” repeatedly in interviews.

Phelps, a man with 18 Olympic gold medals and 26 World Championships, won zero events at the Mesa Grand Prix last month, essentially dipping his toes back into competitive waters with a shallow one-and-a-half-event program.

Phelps’ second comeback meet is the Charlotte Grand Prix, where he swims two events, both Friday. He was questioned on Thursday if his competitive fire is still there, 21 months since he last stood atop a podium.

“I don’t want anybody to beat me,” Phelps said. “Nobody.”

In Mesa, Phelps took second to Ryan Lochte in the 100m butterfly and then swam the butterfly stroke in a 50m freestyle preliminary race, where he finished seventh and didn’t make the evening finals.

It’ll be a slightly heavier load in Charlotte. Phelps plans to swim the 100m butterfly again but this time pair it with the 200m free in the same preliminary session.

“I guess now I’m moving up to the big leagues,” said Phelps, dripping with hyperbole. He isn’t sure he will swim both finals Friday night.

Lochte isn’t swimming in Charlotte, but Phelps’ penchant for winning will be tested in the 200m free by the gold and silver medalists from last year’s World Championships. They happen to be his training partners in Baltimore — Yannick Agnel and Conor Dwyer.

“I really started feeling better freestyle-wise in workouts over the last week or so, so it will be interesting to see how this 200 goes,” Phelps said. “It will be fun to hop in and really race these guys in their best events. The biggest thing is to just to see what kind of shape I’m.”

Charlotte Grand Prix preview, schedule

Remember, Phelps showed up to last year’s World Championships as a spectator in a walking boot. He gained 30 pounds in retirement but has shed most or all of it since returning to training last year, at the approval of his longtime coach, Bob Bowman.

“The reason that I guess I sanctioned this activity, whatever it is, I don’t know what you want to call it, is because he’s doing it the right way and for the right reasons,” said Bowman, who often sits or stands next to Phelps in interviews, as he did Thursday. “When he comes in the door, he’s got a smile on his face. I don’t have to force him to do anything. So as long as it continues like that, I think we’re good, because that’s the only reason he should do it. If he loves to swim and he wants to do it, I always said Mozart should make music as long as he wants to make music. He shouldn’t have to retire just because he’s 30 or some age, but by the same token it should be good music.”

Last year, Phelps communicated his desire to return to swimming in typical 18th-century composer fashion — by text message to Bowman. He said he had interest in going to a training camp at altitude in Colorado Springs, the kind of grueling trip Phelps wasn’t exactly enamored with over his four Olympics.

That perplexed Bowman, a man with a university degree in developmental psychology and a minor in music composition.

“Since he has kicked and screamed going to Colorado for the last decade, I’m not really sure why he wanted to do that,” Bowman said. “So that’s kind of how it started.”

They had a serious talk last August, laying out the conditions, and the coach/swimmer relationship, once fraught with hassle, is now more easygoing.

“We’re not quite so … ” Bowman began, searching for an adjective. ” … urgent.”

If training isn’t perfect, Bowman doesn’t lose sleep over it like he did for 16 years during Phelps’ ascent from the rankling little brother of a 1996 Olympic hopeful to the most decorated Olympian of all time.

But at some point the pressure will rise, if Phelps wants to go to his fifth Olympics and win more gold medals in Rio (to which he hasn’t yet committed).

“We’ve got to balance that [competitive fire] with the amount of work we want to put in to swim whatever program might end up being,” Bowman said.

That line perked Phelps up, sitting next to Bowman at a table in Charlotte.

“There goes the word, ‘program,’ start it now,” Phelps said, drawing laughs, of the term Bowman has long used for Phelps’ outline of swimming six, seven and eight events at major international meets.

“We’re going to find out a little bit more about the program tomorrow, and then we’ll know more,” Bowman said.

That drew an inevitable, jocular, follow-up question.

What is the program for Rio?

“There is no program for Rio,” Bowman said. “There’s just a program for Charlotte.”

The Phelps-Bowman back-and-forth continued when Phelps said swimming now is “a lot funner than golf.”

“You guys are writing that down?” Bowman told reporters.

Phelps, a poker nut, also went all-in on golf during his retirement, playing in European celebrity events (including sinking a 51-yard putt in St. Andrews, Scotland) and learning from Hank Haney in a Golf Channel series.

“It was all downhill after that putt, right?” Bowman joked.

“I actually should have just retired from the sport after that,” Phelps said.

But he hasn’t. Phelps lamented that he still hasn’t broken 85, though he did shoot 43 for nine holes recently and worked more with Haney in Cabo earlier this month. He has goals left in the sport, just as he does in swimming.

“I’d still like to get down to a scratch golfer,” Phelps said. “I have learned, just like anything else that you do, you have to play a lot. You have to play every day.”

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World Figure Skating Championships women’s preview

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Ashley Wagner has not watched any of Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva‘s programs this season, but this much Wagner knows without looking:

“She is technically flawless, and if there is an athlete that we should be chasing, obviously it’s Yevgenia,” Wagner said.

Medvedeva, a 17-year-old from Moscow, is the biggest favorite across all four disciplines at next week’s world championships in Helsinki (broadcast schedule here).

Wagner is the 2016 World silver medalist, the first U.S. woman on the podium in 10 years, but it would be shocking if she upgrades to gold next week. Realistically, she’s at best fighting for a silver or bronze along with Russians Anna Pogorilaya and Maria Sotskova, Canadians Kaetlyn Osmond and Gabrielle Daleman, Italian Carolina Kostner and Japan’s Mai Mihara.

Medvedeva is in her own class.

Undefeated since November 2015. Winner of her last 11 events in her first two seasons at the senior level. She can become the first woman to repeat as world champion since Michelle Kwan in 2001.

In fact, another gold would give Medvedeva the most dominant two-season stretch by a female skater since Katarina Witt‘s stronghold in the mid-1980s.

“I really appreciate her in the sport because she is a set bar that everybody is chasing after, and I think in years past that bar was always changing,” Wagner said.

What sets Medvedeva apart is that she has been polished, from her triple-triple jump combinations and spins to her performance quality, since turning 16 in her senior debut season a year ago.

And her consistency. All other recent Russian stars — 2014 Olympic champions Adelina Sotnikova and Yulia Lipnitskaya and 2015 World champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva — simply could not put together two straight world-class seasons at the senior level.

Given that history, Wagner is not fully sold on Medvedeva.

“Time will tell,” said Wagner, who has joked that she needs to skate like “a robot” to compete with Medvedeva. “She is not part of this normal cycle of Russian athletes. I feel like they have one or two seasons of dominance, and then they kind of disappear. So we will see what happens to her, but she seems to be going very strong.”

Medvedeva, whose mom was a skater, started in the sport at age 3, inspired like many by the great Yevgeny Plushenko.

Figure skating is popular and storied in Russia, but Medvedeva is rarely recognized back home, where she still spends weekends watching cartoons. She does have more than 100,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram, though.

Medvedeva’s scores from her four international competitions this season are the four highest scores in the world, all above 220 points. This despite falling at one competition, having one jump called under-rotated at another and stepping out of a landing at another.

Nobody else in next week’s field has cracked 217 points — in their careers.

At December’s Russian Championships, Medvedeva added a second triple toe loop onto a triple Salchow-triple toe loop combination, knowing she would get zero points for the superfluous jump. She did it three minutes into her free skate (with controversial music from a film about Sept. 11, 2001), when most skaters would be tired.

Medvedeva has shown disappointment when not breaking records and talked about adding a quadruple Salchow to her arsenal. She speaks some English in interviews, even though she hasn’t taken English classes in two years, according to Icenetwork.

“Sometimes I feel like I am two people: the grown-up and the kid,” she said in the fall, according to Icenetwork. “The first one is able to understand and execute difficult programs, while the other one is just like … watching cartoons all the time!”

Medvedeva was last outscored in the short program at last year’s world championships in Boston. She placed third behind Gracie Gold and Pogorilaya, with Wagner in fourth.

In the free skate, Medvedeva and Wagner climbed to gold and silver, respectively. Wagner tallied personal bests for both programs at the 2016 Worlds, yet still finished 7.47 points behind Medvedeva.

Wagner has been unable to replicate those kinds of skates this season. In two international events, her best total is 196.44 points, which seeds her eighth going into worlds. She was also beaten by surprise Karen Chen at the U.S. Championships in January.

“This year is not the year I’m planning on peaking,” Wagner said. “Next year is the year that I am like in it to kill. … This year is my chance to work out all of the kinks, figure out where I want to be mentally going into next year and even though to some on the outside looking in, it wouldn’t look like it was the most successful season for me, I think at the end of the day this season has been exactly what I needed it to be.”

As noted, the pressure is on Wagner to lead an inexperienced U.S. team of three women in Helsinki. She’ll be joined by training partner Mariah Bell and Chen. The two worlds rookies have been less impressive than Wagner internationally this season. They’re seeded 10th and 16th.

The two best results out of Wagner, Chen and Bell must add up to no more than 13, or else the U.S. will only get two women’s spots at the Olympics for the second time in the last six Winter Games.

There is an outside chance of a Russian sweep, given the second-best skater this season, Japan’s Satoko Miyahara, withdrew due to injury. Pogorilaya, the 2016 World bronze medalist, has the next two highest scores this season after Medvedeva and Miyahara.

Russia also has Sotskova, the most impressive of the first-year senior skaters.

The experienced category is led by Osmond, having her best results since debuting as a senior in 2012, and Kostner, the six-time world medalist back after two years off. They’re seeded third and fourth.

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U.S. women’s hockey players show solildarity in portraits

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The U.S. women’s hockey team is … family, powerful, united, strong, brave, together, limitless, fierce, bold, historic, ambitious, resilient, fearless and devoted.

All 23 players on the U.S. roster planning to boycott the world championship that starts in one week posted portraits on Twitter on Friday morning. Each player held a paper with a one-word descriptor.

The players plan to boycott the world championship tournament in Plymouth, Mich., unless their wage dispute with USA Hockey is settled.

The players believed they reached an agreement with USA Hockey in a 10-hour-plus meeting Monday, but USA Hockey’s later counter offer “didn’t reflect the progress of the negotiations,” according to the players’ representatives.

USA Hockey said Thursday that it will start reaching out to potential replacement players, but it still hopes to come to an agreement to field its original team in Plymouth.

“As we have maintained from the beginning, this issue is about more than the compensation of the current team: it’s about equitable treatment for female players now and in the future,” the players said in a statement Thursday. “A forward-looking agreement will benefit the next generation of players even more than the current players. For that reason, and the fact that the younger players identify with us, we are confident that they [potential replacement players] would choose not to play.”

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