Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps gets serious in return to U.S. Championships

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IRVINE, Calif. — This week’s U.S. Swimming Championships will include nearly 1,000 competitors, as young as 13, but one stands out above the rest.

Michael Phelps will dive in the Woollett Aquatics Center pool on Wednesday for his first Nationals since the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials. Four-time Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin put the atmosphere in perspective Tuesday morning.

“Where else do you have the opportunity to have high school basketball players play in a game with LeBron James?” she said.

It’s the fifth meet of Phelps’ comeback after a 20-month competitive retirement following the London Olympics. It’s the most important of the handful so far with spots at stake for the year’s biggest international meet two weeks later, the Pan Pacific Championships in Gold Coast, Australia.

Times from the U.S. Championships and the Pan Pacific Championships will determine who makes the team for the 2015 World Championships in Kazan, Russia, the biggest meet between now and the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Here, Phelps is entered in the 100m freestyle Wednesday, 100m butterfly Friday, 100m backstroke Saturday and 200m individual medley Sunday.

Universal Sports will have coverage from 9-11 p.m. ET on Wednesday. NBC picks up weekend coverage from 4-6 on Saturday and Sunday.

Phelps will make the Pan Pacific Championships team if he finishes in the top two of any one of those four events. He would likely also make the Pan Pacs team if he finishes third in a single event. Once a swimmer makes the Pan Pacs team in one event, he or she can enter additional events at the meet in Australia.

That takes a bit of the pressure off, but Phelps is still treating the meet with respect. He said he enters a meet shaved for the first time since the London Games, where he won six medals to bring his career tally to a record 22.

On Tuesday, Phelps, tanned and dressed in a neon green Under Armour tanktop as if he had just strolled in from Newport Beach, paraphrased the lines he’s stressed throughout the comeback.

He has unfinished business — which he won’t divulge — and is training different now at 29 than during his dominant days. Fewer yards under the eyes of longtime coach Bob Bowman in Baltimore and healthier eating to shed those retirement pounds.

Phelps said he just finished a six-month stretch avoiding red meat, just to see what it would do to his body. He’s been pleased with the progress of his return, particularly since high-altitude training in Colorado Springs in May and June.

At his last meet, Phelps beat longtime rival Ryan Lochte in three head-to-heads in Athens, Ga., in July. Granted, Lochte had not competed in three months due to injury.

“After this week we’ll have a good picture of if he’s ahead, behind,” Bowman said of Phelps, the 10th-oldest swimmer in Irvine.

Tuesday was significant for two other reasons. Phelps announced he signed a new swimsuit deal through the 2020 Tokyo Games, and the date marked two years to go until the Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony.

One couldn’t imagine Phelps diving in for a sixth Olympics at age 35 in six years. Even for No. 5 in Rio, he and Bowman wouldn’t commit.

“We’ll see how it goes this week, and then maybe if there’s anything after that, we’ll see how that goes,” Bowman said.

Two years to Rio Olympics: Swimming storylines

U.S. sprinters past, present trade relay barbs

Justin Gatlin
Getty Images
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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The only loss for the Americans at the Penn Relays came in the men’s 4x100m, as the U.S. team bobbled its victory away on a bad baton handoff between Tyson Gay and Isiah Young for the final leg, which led to a disqualification.

Mike Rodgers and Justin Gatlin gave the Americans an early lead in the race, and things were moving along well during Gay’s third leg. But the muffed handoff for the final leg cost the Americans. Both the winning Jamaican squad and the second American team surpassed them.

Young finished third, but the team was disqualified because the handoff occurred outside the pass zone. The second U.S. team of Sean McLean, Wallace Spearman, Calesio Newman and Remontay McLain finished in 39.02.

The mistake led to some inflammatory comments from U.S. great Leroy Burrell about continued problems with handoffs by U.S. relay teams.

“Well, I think we’ve got to put our team together a little earlier, possibly,” Burrell said in a television interview. “I think, we’ve had the same coaches working with these guys for many years, and we’ve had failure after failure. So it’s possible that, you know, it might be time for a bit of a regime change with the leadership.

“I think the athletes have to be the catalysts that make that happen. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to get the stick around. I saw thousands of relay teams yesterday — maybe not thousands, but hundreds of relay teams get it around. But the professionals can’t. That’s just not good for our sport.”

Rodgers didn’t take kindly to those remarks.

“People keep pointing their fingers and downing us, but nobody has ever tried to come out there and help us,” he said. “Nobody from the past. Not Carl [Lewis] or Leroy. They haven’t been out there. I can’t really respect their opinions because they’re supposed to be leaders in our sport and in the USA, and they’re not coming out there to drop some knowledge on us, so I don’t care what they have to say.”

Lewis criticized U.S. relays in March.

Gatlin was equally critical of Burrell.

“I’m tired of people who have been part of Team USA take shots at Team USA,” Gatlin said. “To put us in the same boat as high schoolers is insulting.”

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Bob Costas’ report 100 days out from Rio (video)

Bob Costas
NBC News
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Bob Costas reported from Rio de Janeiro for NBC News on Wednesday, 100 days out from the Opening Ceremony.

In the clip below, Michael PhelpsSimone Biles and even Brazil soccer legend Pelé comment on preparing for the first Games in South America.

Costas finished the clip with a stand-up from Copacabana Beach, where beach volleyball will take place in August.

VIDEO: Bob Costas picks biggest storyline of Rio Olympics