Michael Phelps said recent months, including a six-month suspension following a DUI arrest, were the hardest times of his life and that he hurt a lot of people, but now he’s the happiest he’s ever been on the eve of his first swim meet since August.
And that he wants to compete in the Rio Olympics.
Phelps, bearded, wearing a blue T-shirt and next to a water bottle both inscribed with his initials for a new swimwear logo, reflected and looked ahead while answering questions for 40 minutes in Mesa, Ariz., on Wednesday. He’s scheduled to compete at the Pro Swim Series stop there Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Phelps accepted that he will not compete at this summer’s World Championships, as part of his punishment handed down by USA Swimming in October. A March report stated Phelps could be reinstated to the team that he originally qualified for in August, one month before his DUI arrest.
“By no way would I ever want to displace a member of that team,” said Phelps, adding that he plans to swim during the Summer Nationals in San Antonio that take place the same time in August as Worlds in Kazan, Russia. “It is painful to think that I won’t have the chance to compete at Worlds based off the decision that was made last fall by USA Swimming.”
“It is disappointing that we can’t be there, but we understand the situation,” said Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, sitting next to Phelps in a press conference. “We are anxious to move on.”
On Wednesday, Phelps uttered a word he barely, if ever, used in 2014 media sessions, starting in Mesa last April, his first meet since a 20-month competitive retirement following the London Olympics.
“Hopefully, I’ll look forward to rejoining my teammates next summer,” Phelps said. “I guess leading into Rio.”
Bowman interrupted at that point, whispering, “this is the first time,” in reference to Phelps mentioning the site of the next Olympics.
A reporter then asked, does that mean you’re definitely going to try to go to Rio?
“You guys heard it here first, like it’s a big surprise,” said Phelps, who could become the first U.S. male swimmer to make five Olympic teams.
Phelps stayed true to his penchant for not revealing his goals but said they were “very lofty.” Here are some of the records he could chase in Rio.
But he and Bowman also shared stories that gave a glimpse into Phelps’ life since the DUI and a 45-day treatment program his attorney said he attended in Arizona.
Phelps said he called Bowman “several times” while they were separated. Bowman said he “went out and spent a day with him, kind of in the middle of it.”
“No one is more skeptical than me,” Bowman said. “When we had our last experience, it was going to be pretty hard to convince me that anything was going to lead back to something that we would be proud of. Michael called me a couple times from when he was away. And that started to make me think. That’s really weird, because he never calls me, ever.
“Honestly, when I went, I was, again, skeptical. I don’t know if I want to do this or not. When I left there, No. 1 I was amazed that people are transformed like that, but I just had no doubt that he had changed in a way that was really meaningful. It wasn’t superficial. It wasn’t like he’s just doing it because he knew he had to. He’s completely different. It’s been that way every day since he’s been back, and that’s the truth. Nobody’s harder on him than me.”
Phelps said there was a point where he didn’t really leave his room “for like a week, for anything.”
And that he’s training harder now than at any point since 2008, when he won a record eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics at the peak of his career.
“It’s like being in a time machine,” Bowman said, according to the Baltimore Sun. “It’s remarkable to see somebody at age 29, doing some things faster than he ever has. He’s doing things I haven’t seen him do in at least six years.”
He’s certainly more serious about workouts than during his initial comeback in 2014.
“I was fat and out of shape last year,” said Phelps, who was the world’s top-ranked 100m butterfly swimmer in 2014 and the only U.S. man to lead the world in an Olympic event for the year.
Phelps added one more story, that Bowman recently gave him a bunch of letters written by kids from Winfield Elementary School in Windsor Mill, Md., near their Baltimore base. Bowman said the letters were written in October and sent anonymously by a teacher to the coach.
Phelps said he was almost in tears reading them. The students wrote about perseverance, he said.