Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt will hope tough times came and passed in the spring.
On the third weekend of May, the 22-time Olympic medalist Phelps finished third, seventh, ninth, ninth and 11th in five events spanning three days at a swim meet in Charlotte, N.C.
The last time Phelps went to a meet and did not leave it with a top-two placement? The Sydney 2000 Olympics, when he was 15 years old.
At the conclusion of the Charlotte meet, the most decorated Olympian of all time called parts of his swimming “horrendous” and “pretty garbage” and that he had to reassess “a bunch of stuff.”
“I have work to do,” Phelps said May 17. “There’s some time, but not much.
“Whatever it is I have to figure out, I have to figure out now.”
On the second Saturday of June, the six-time Olympic champion Bolt ran his slowest 200m final time since 2006 at the Adidas Grand Prix in New York. He won, barely and against not-so-decorated competition, but he was not pleased.
“I don’t know exactly what’s going on,” Bolt said at the track where he broke his first world record on May 31, 2008, after a lightning storm. “At this pace, my legacy is going to be in trouble.”
The two athletes most synonymous with the Olympics this millennium, perhaps of all time, both plan to make Rio 2016 their final Games.
Will Phelps and Bolt go out in 2016 as the champions of 2008 and 2012? That’s an unknown one year before the Opening Ceremony.
Phelps, Bolt hope to meet for first time before Olympic farewell
Phelps, 30, originally retired after his fourth Olympics in London, where he won six medals to pass Soviet Larissa Latynina for the most in a career.
He returned to competition 20 months later, a decision he’s repeatedly said was made “to have fun” this time around.
In September, Phelps was arrested on DUI charges in Maryland. Phelps said the months following that arrest were the hardest times of his life, a span that included a six-month competition ban and a 45-day treatment program his attorney said he attended in Arizona.
Phelps didn’t publicly commit to making a run for the Rio Olympics until the end of the suspension this past April. The punishment for the DUI charge also included excluding Phelps from the ongoing World Championships in Kazan, Russia, the biggest meet outside of the Olympics.
“Phelps’ commitment appears to remain firm following the struggles of late last year and, in the pool, the defeats of this spring. He ended the losing skid in June with two wins in a meet in Santa Clara, Calif., and is competing this week at the U.S. Championships in San Antonio while the rest of the best American swimmers are in Russia.”
The talent and drive are still there. In 2014, Phelps was the only U.S. male swimmer to post a world-leading time in an Olympic event (100m butterfly). He swore off the 200m butterfly early in his comeback but has since warmed to it, a sign of growing confidence. Phelps could try to make the Olympic team to swim seven events in 2016 (three of them relays), which would be the same number as in 2012 and one fewer than in 2004 and 2008.
Phelps was absolutely not one of the best swimmers at that Charlotte meet in May, but all that matters is if he is one of the best at the Olympic trials next June and July and at Rio in August 2016.
Flashback: Michael Phelps at Sydney 2000 Olympics
Bolt, 28, hasn’t lost an individual race since June 6, 2013, marking the longest win streak (by days) of his senior career.
But that statistic is misleading. Bolt hasn’t competed against the world’s best sprinters since 2013 and missed much of 2014 and 2015 due to injuries.
His world records from 2009 are 9.58 seconds in the 100m and 19.19 in the 200m. Bolt’s best times since the start of 2014 in those races were 9.98 and 20.13, until he woke up and ran 9.87 twice in an hour span at the London Olympic Stadium on July 24.
That might have been enough to allay concerns in past seasons, but not now. Bolt’s challenge is not just to rediscover his past form but also to overcome a rival.
American Justin Gatlin, who won the 2004 Olympic 100m title, is running the fastest times of his life at age 33, five years removed from a four-year doping ban.
Gatlin hasn’t lost an individual race since Sept. 6, 2013, which was the last time he lined up versus Bolt. Since, Gatlin is the only man to run 9.80 seconds or faster for 100m, which he has done six times.
By the end of August, we’ll know whether Bolt will go into 2016 as the favorite to win the 100m and 200m at a third straight Olympics. He and Gatlin are scheduled to face off in the 100m and 200m at the World Championships in Beijing in three weeks.
While Phelps’ plans post-Rio aren’t known, Bolt has said he will definitely continue competing for one more year. He wants to end his career at the 2017 World Championships in London. But what if he loses there? Could he retire with a legacy that includes a defeat in his final major race?
“I don’t think I could,” Bolt said in February. “On my last race, my last championship, I don’t think I could.”
Flashback: Usain Bolt at Athens 2004 Olympics (video)