Michael Phelps looked pretty fast after taking 20 months off from competition, but he’ll need to work a little harder to beat longtime rival Ryan Lochte.
Phelps took second to Lochte in his first competitive final since the London Olympics, a 100m butterfly at the Arena Grand Prix at Mesa, Ariz., on Thursday night.
Lochte, whose best strokes are freestyle and backstroke, won in 51.93 seconds. The unretired Phelps clocked 52.13 after swimming the fastest time in the preliminary heats earlier Thursday, 52.84, one tenth faster than Lochte.
The first day of Phelps’ comeback is in the books. How does he feel?
“I’m my hardest critic, so I know what I can do there,” Phelps, a 22-time Olympic medalist, said of the 100m butterfly. “But, like I’ve been saying this whole time, I’m having fun. I really do mean that. There’s nothing like being able to come here, swimming in front of packed stands.”
He cherished racing the 11-time Olympic medalist Lochte, whom he battled after the 2008 Olympics and through the 2012 Olympics to be the world’s best swimmer.
“That’s what makes us swim faster and faster each time,” Phelps said.
NBC Olympics analyst Rowdy Gaines said Phelps appeared to have more of a game face on for the night final than he did for the morning prelim. Phelps and Lochte were side by side at night, both in white caps and dark jammer swim trunks.
“I think I was more calm tonight,” Phelps said. “I don’t know if that was a good thing or not.”
Lochte led at the 50m turn and took a peek at Phelps coming off the wall amid a setting sun outside at Skyline Aquatics Center.
“I almost started smiling,” Lochte said.
“Why, because you were ahead?” responded Phelps, standing next to Lochte in the post-race interview.
Lochte, who is coming back from aggravating a major November knee injury in February, said he felt the magnitude of the meet.
“Especially this morning, seeing all these cameras right before I’m about to race,” Lochte said. “I’m like, thanks, Michael.”
Phelps last swam a 100m butterfly at the 2012 Olympics, where he won his third straight gold in the event in 51.21. The fastest time in the world so far this year is 51.84, according to SwimVortex.com. South African Chad le Clos won the 2013 World Championship in 51.06.
Phelps retired after winning six medals at the London Olympics but re-entered the drug testing pool last year, allowing him to enter meets this year.
It was announced he signed up for the Mesa Grand Prix on April 14, and he made his first comments since entering the meet on Wednesday, saying he’s back swimming “for fun” and not yet committing to a run to the Rio Olympics.
Phelps is slated for one more event in Mesa, the 50m freestyle on Friday.
“Two races down,” Phelps said. “See what happens tomorrow.”
In other races, reigning World Swimmer of the Year Katie Ledecky won the 400m freestyle by nearly five seconds in 4:03.84, matching the fastest time in the world this year. That came about 45 minutes after she finished fourth in the 100m free.
“I train everything,” said Ledecky, who is 17 and the reigning world champion in the 400m free. “The speed can help me for all my race, so it’s really beneficial to swim all these events here.”
Olympic champion Nathan Adrian won the 100m freestyle in 48.23. Lochte was fourth in 49.68.
Five-time 2012 Olympic medalist Allison Schmitt won the women’s 100m free in 54.46. Schmitt, who surprisingly failed to make the 2013 World Championships team, edged Megan Romano (55.05), who anchored that worlds team to victories in the 4x100m free relay and medley relay in Barcelona. Twelve-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin was third in 55.14, followed by Ledecky in 55.22.
Jamaican Olympian Alia Atkinson won the women’s 200m breaststroke in 2:25.52, followed by Americans Micah Lawrence (2:26.60) and Breeja Larson (2:28.87). Lawrence and Larson were the U.S. entries in the 200m breast at last year’s World Championships.
Michael McBroom, the 2013 world 800m free silver medalist, won the men’s 400m free in 3:50.87. Olympian Conor Dwyer was second, three seconds behind. Olympic 200m backstroke champion Tyler Clary was third.
2012 Olympian Claire Donahue won the women’s 100m butterfly in 59.05.
Colombian Jorge Murillo Valdes won the men’s 200m breast in 2:14.81.