Michael Phelps has been watching his U.S. teammates compete at the World Championships, and he’s at a loss for words.
“Honestly, I really don’t know what to say about what I’ve seen over there,” a bearded Phelps said in San Antonio on Wednesday, ahead of competing at the U.S. Championships this weekend. “An interesting place for USA Swimming to be in, because we’ve never been in it. We’ve never been in a spot where we’re trying to get back to the top.”
Phelps qualified for the World Championships last year, but he was excluded from the roster for the Kazan, Russia, meet following his Sept. 30 DUI arrest.
Without Phelps, the U.S. won eight medals in the first four days of the World Championships, with four days to go. It is in danger of bringing home its fewest medals from a Worlds or Olympics in the last 50 years. The previous low was 21 at the 1994 World Championships.
“We’re not having the greatest meet,” said Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, obviously not counting the feats of triple gold medalist Katie Ledecky.
The nadir may have come on the meet’s first day, when the U.S. men’s 4x100m freestyle relay team finished tied for 11th overall in the preliminaries and missed the eight-team final.
The U.S. quartet included Anthony Ervin, the oldest member of the entire U.S. team at age 34, who split 49.69, which was more than one second slower than the two swimmers who followed him in the relay.
“It’s kind of shocking that we don’t have a relay that can go faster than that,” Phelps said.
That reminded Phelps of the Athens 2004 Olympics, when Ian Crocker led off the 4x100m free relay with the slowest split time of the entire 32-swimmer field. Phelps, Neil Walker and Jason Lezak brought the U.S. back for the bronze medal.
“It’s much harder to qualify the relays than it used to be,” Bowman said. “In 2004, it was like an afterthought to be in the final of a relay for the U.S., up to that point. … But starting in 2007, we started having some close calls with qualification, and the other countries started swimming their best people in the morning. … We’re going to have to start swimming some of our best people in the morning to qualify [for the finals].”
Phelps said he reached out to longtime friendly rival Ryan Lochte earlier this week, following the U.S. miss in the 4x100m free relay. Lochte was not part of that preliminary relay team.
“You’ve got to be a leader,” Phelps said he told Lochte. “You’ve got to step up.”
Lochte finished fourth in his first of two individual events at Worlds, the 200m freestyle on Tuesday. He was the top qualifier into Thursday’s 200m individual medley final.
Phelps, 30, was also asked when he will stop swimming competitively and responded, “I don’t know.” He committed this spring to making a run for the Rio Olympics but hasn’t commented publicly on plans beyond that.