Michael Phelps and longtime coach Bob Bowman are known for setting goal times for big meets, and keeping those times secret.
Before the U.S. Championships, Phelps asked Bowman to scribble a time for his first event of the meet Friday night, the 200m butterfly. Phelps did the same, writing his numbers separately.
“Substantially faster than what both of us put down,” Bowman told media at the meet in San Antonio.
Phelps, the 22-time Olympic medalist, clocked his fastest 200m butterfly since he set the world record in 2009 at the U.S. Championships on Friday night. He won in 1:52.94.
The time would have won gold at the World Championships, which are being held concurrently in Kazan, Russia, by .54 of a second. It would have won the 2012 Olympics by .02.
Simply, it’s the most impressive swim for Phelps since he came back to the sport following a 20-month competitive retirement in April 2014.
“He gutted that out like I haven’t seen him do in a long time,” Bowman said. “He told me the plan before the race, and it was exactly what he did.”
Upon touching the wall, Phelps caught his breath for a few seconds, learned his time and slammed his right arm into the pool in perhaps his most exuberant celebration since winning the 100m butterfly at the 2009 World Championships.
Then he slammed both of his arms in the water for good measure (race video here). Those were accompanied by raising a No. 1 finger in the air, according to reports from the meet.
“I guess it’s a good feeling to be back,” Phelps told media in San Antonio (video here). “We’re in a pretty good place right now.”
Remember, Phelps was upset at the 2012 Olympics by South African Chad le Clos and swore off the 200m butterfly at the start of his comeback last year.
“Nope, uh-uh,” Phelps said in May 2014, smiling while cutting off a reporter at the mention of the 200m butterfly, one of his more grueling events. “I will tell you that that race and the 400m IM [individual medley] are definitely gone.”
But in May 2015, Phelps had a different mindset.
“For me to ever want to really compete at that race, I would make sure that I was in the best shape possible,” Phelps said one day before clocking 2:00.77 for seventh place in a meet in Charlotte. “I know what I have to do to be able to get there. I don’t know if I’m ready to do that.”
The 200m butterfly was long Phelps’ trademark event. It was his first Olympic event, debuting with a fifth place at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. He went some 60 races over nine years without losing a 200m butterfly.
“It’s been a long, hard road to get here,” Bowman said. “You never really know if you’re ever going to get back to that level.”
Phelps warmed to re-adding it this year in part because the rest of the world’s times have not been impressive.
“He’s been talking a lot of smack in the media about how slow the butterfly is,” le Clos said at the World Championships earlier this week, according to The Associated Press.
Phelps is swimming at the U.S. Championships and not the World Championships this week due to punishment from his Sept. 30 DUI arrest.
In April, Phelps called the months following that arrest some of the hardest times of his life. He’s emerged from it with incredible confidence.
“I can do whatever I put my mind to,” Phelps said, “and this next year is going to be pretty damn fun.”