Bob Bowman

Simply America's best: Phelps, Ledecky


OMAHA — Brendan Hansen, the breaststroke standout and six-time Olympic medalist, is here at the 2016 U.S. swim Trials as a poolside announcer. Before the action got underway Wednesday, he lined up four teen-agers and asked: who are you here to see? One by one, on the big screen, here were the answers: Michael Phelps. And Katie Ledecky.

No duh.

Phelps back on the victory stand // Getty Images

The U.S. swim team that goes to Rio will be filled with a big chunk of names new to most people who know swimming only on NBC, and every four years:

Newcomers: Olivia Smoliga. Lilly King. Townley Haas. And more, among them Kevin Cordes, already the winner of the men’s 100 breaststroke who flirted with the world record in the 200 breast Wednesday, winning his semifinal in 2:07.81.

To be clear, there will be a few familiar faces, too: Ryan Lochte, who has qualified at the least for the relays. Allison Schmitt, the women’s 200 free gold medalist in London, qualified Wednesday for the relays. Assuming all goes to plan in Thursday’s final, expect to see Nathan Adrian, who rocked a 47.91, second-best time in the world in 2016 in the semifinal of the men’s 100.

But let’s face it: the headliners are Phelps and Ledecky.

Katie Ledecky, left, and Missy Franklin after the 200 free // Getty Images

And a little later, at the victory ceremony // Getty Images

And that’s with a full measure of  respect for Missy Franklin, who pulled off one of the gutsiest swims of her career Wednesday to grab the No. 2 spot in the women’s 200 free, behind Ledecky.

Phelps — as he has been for so long — is simply America’s best. So, too, Ledecky.

In winning the men’s 200 butterfly Wednesday in 1:54.84, Phelps became the first male swimmer to qualify for a  fifth straight Olympic team. He turns 31 on Thursday. His first Games, in Sydney in 2000, came when he was just 15. He finished fifth there in the 200 fly. That was the start of the string of all the superlatives since — the 22 Olympic medals, 18 gold, the eight-for-eight in Beijing.

After looking up at the end of Wednesday’s 200 to see his time, Phelps held up all five fingers, signaling Olympics No. 5. Tom Shields took second, in 1:55.81.

Phelps’ 7-week-old son, Boomer, was poolside, with mom Nicole Johnson. For the occasion, Boomer wore noise-canceling headphones dressed up with American flags. After the medal ceremony, Phelps walked around the pool to the section where they were sitting; Nicole, carrying the baby, came down some stairs; father tenderly kissed his baby boy.

Phelps’ longtime coach and mentor, Bob Bowman, said he shed a few tears — maybe the first time ever at such ceremonies — thinking of all the turbulent waters he, Phelps and Schmitt, who is like a sister to Phelps, have navigated.

“It means we have been through a hell of a lot,” Bowman said. “A hell of a lot.”

Before the race, Zach Harting, in Lane 7, came out dressed as Batman. He was duly announced as "The Dark Knight."

Phelps, over in Lane 4, played -- what else -- Superman. As usual at the pool, with little fanfare. He simply wrote another fine line in the Phelps record book.

Phelps led the race wire to wire. At 150 meters, just as he had wanted, he was at 1:22 -- specifically, 1:22.94 -- with a world-record 1:50 a possibility. That last 50, though, he would say later, “the piano fell pretty hard.” He got home in 31.9; five guys in the race, including Harting, swam the final 50 between 30 and 31 seconds. Shields, trying to hang with Phelps, managed his final 50 in 32.08.

A further comparison: in 2015, Phelps went 1:52.94. That was his fastest time in the 200 fly since 2009, when he set the world record, 1:51.51.

For the record: Batman finished seventh, 2.08 back.

Phelps being Phelps, that final 31.9 is likely to give him ample motivation between now and Rio: "... I don't know what happened the last 50. I was just praying to hit the wall first or second."

Bowman: "It isn't 50. It was like the last 20."

Too, there now awaits the challenge of racing South Africa’s Chad le Clos, who out-touched Phelps for gold in the London 200 fly. Phelps said, “I didn’t have the chance to race him last summer. I am looking forward to racing him this summer.”

Phelps still has the 200 IM and 100 fly to go.

“Now,” he told the crowd a few moments after the race in a pool-deck interview, “let’s have some fun over these next couple events and see what happens.”

In winning the women’s 200 freestyle in 1:54.88, Ledecky made emphatically clear what has been apparent to swim nerds since last summer’s world championships in Kazan, Russia: she is not just the best women’s swimmer in the United States but the world.

No one else is really close.

Four years ago, when she was 15, Ledecky won the 800 in London. Since, she has come to dominate women’s swimming at every race from 200 up: 200, 400, 800 and the 1500, what swimmers call the mile.

Ledecky qualified earlier here for the 400. The 800 prelims are Friday, finals Saturday. There is no women’s 1500 at the Olympics. Here in Omaha, she will also be swimming the 100 free; the prelims are Thursday morning.

At 150 meters Wednesday, Ledecky and Franklin were 1-2. Ledecky then went 29.54 over the final 50. Franklin: 30.3.

Franklin touched in 1:56.18.

That amounts to a full 1.3 seconds behind Ledecky. In a race like the 200 free, that is a lot.

The announcement that Ledecky was now the racer to beat took place at last summer’s worlds in far-away Russia, when Ledecky dropped down to the 200 — after dominating the 400, 800 and 1500 — and won that, too.

The race Wednesday merely proved the next chapter: every single one of Ledecky's four splits proved faster than Franklin's.

In relating these facts, no one should infer — because none is implied — anything but appreciation  for Franklin, who finished seventh Tuesday in the 100 back, an event she used to dominate.

No matter the situation, Franklin comports herself with respect and grace for herself and family, the sport and about everyone she meets.

She is a class act, and the U.S. team is all the better for having her now on the way to Rio.

As her longtime coach, Todd Schmitz, would tweet late Wednesday:

She would say after the race, “You know, I think I’ve just been thinking about it a lot differently, you know and I realized that my job here, it’s not to make the Olympic team. It’s not to defend anything. It’s to swim well. That’s always what my job has been, and that’s what I need to continue to do, so it’s me trying to work through and deal with this kind of pressure that I’ve never really dealt with before.

“I think as we just saw — I’m really starting to figure that out to myself.”

Because Ledecky has opted to retain her amateur status — she will be a freshman at Stanford after the Rio Olympics — she simply is not the crossover star that Franklin has become, with multiple big-name sponsors proving eager over the past couple years to attach their campaigns to the smiling, happy, heartfelt Missy brand.

“It’s unbelievable,” Franklin said when asked about Ledecky, “and you look at her and she has that wide range of distances, too, but I think all of us know that if anyone can do it, Katie Ledecky can do it. And to be a part of that and to now know that I get to be on another relay with her and swim another individual event with her, it’s such an honor.

“She makes [me] a better athlete, a better teammate, a better person, and I have 110 percent faith she can do whatever she sets her mind to.”

The thing is, Ledecky is just as super-genuine as Franklin.

Ledecky said of Franklin, “I told her after the race she’s one tough cookie, and she got the job done tonight. That [200] race is for real, and there’s more to come from her.”

The Rio stage means the world gets its chance to catch up with Franklin, for sure. But, really, to fully appreciate Ledecky. And one final chance to appreciate Phelps.

Phelps with the press here in Omaha // Getty Images

Phelps, as he said Wednesday, is — for the first time after being in the public glare for 16 years — not just acknowledging but showing some vulnerability.

Asked if he would remember the 15-year-old who would qualify for Sydney, Phelps said, “I remember him. I definitely remember him.”

Bowman added, “I remember him. At a press conference like this, the question was, do you have a girlfriend and have you kissed her yet? So we have kind of progressed with the subject matter over 16 years.”

Not so clear is how the 15-year-old Phelps would relate to the man who turns 31 on Thursday. On his last day of being 30, Phelps said, “I’m embracing the moment and taking it one step at a time.”

Showing that sort of vulnerability, however, is not the same as being soft on the blocks. Hardly.

The greats, in sum, process pressure and fear differently than the rest of us. For Ledecky and for Phelps in particular, each race makes for an opportunity to see how good he or she can be.

The more-reflective 30-year-old Phelps gave a mini-dissertation here this week on the subject. He said, “Like this guy asked me today, ‘What do you think about before you swim?’ And I was like, ‘Nothing.’ And he was like, ‘Are you kidding?’ I’m like, ‘No, I don’t think about anything.’ But I’ve told a couple swimmers, just turn your mind off. You’ve done the work to get here, so it’s just time to get in the water and let it loose.”

The Phelps suspension: why the rush to judgment?


Cross-country ski champion Petter Northug was sentenced last Thursday in court in Norway to 50 days behind bars after being convicted of drunk driving. Which brings us to Michael Phelps, the 24/7 media spin cycle we live in and the rush to judgment that led to the significant suspension USA Swimming levied against Phelps for his recent DUI arrest in Baltimore. What was to be gained by USA Swimming rushing to this judgment? More — what was lost by waiting?

Clearly, USA Swimming did what it felt like it needed to do. In some quarters, it is getting kudos for taking decisive action. But was it appropriate — or, better, right?

Norway's Petter Northug at the Sochi Games // photo Getty Images

At issue are several thoroughly basic principles.

One, the media is not running anything. We can’t even run ourselves. Who cares if we are shouting? Or tweeting? Seriously. This is what is called a diversity of opinion. The counterpoint to that is called calm leadership.

Two, bad facts make for bad law. This is elemental. Phelps’ case is not one on which to make, or rest, broad-based policy.

Three, as everyone who has read Orwell knows, all the animals on the farm are not equal. Or are they? Which is it going to be?

To recap:

Phelps, 29, is charged with DUI, excessive speed and crossing double lane lines. Police stopped him outside the Fort McHenry tunnel at 1:40 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 30, saying he was going 84 in a 45 zone; he had spent the hours before at the Horseshoe Casino. Police say his blood alcohol level was 0.14; the state’s legal limit is 0.08. Phelps is due to appear in court on Nov. 19.

The arrest is Phelps’ second for drunk driving. He pleaded guilty to driving while impaired in 2004.

USA Swimming did not suspend him after the 2004 case.

Five years ago, British tabloids published a photo of Phelps with his face in a bong.

USA Swimming suspended him in 2009 for three months.

For those unfamiliar with cross-country skiing, Northug won four medals, two gold, at the Vancouver 2010 Games. When you include medals won at world championships, he is right up there with the legendary Bjorn Daehlie.

Northug, 28, crashed his Audi while driving the first week of May. His blood alcohol level was more than eight times the Norwegian legal limit, according to Reuters. Norway’s limit is 0.02. A friend who was in the car was slightly hurt. Northug was not injured.

Northug was also fined $30,000 and banned from driving for life; Associated Press said that “normally means a minimum of five years.”

The accident and aftermath have been front-page news for months in winter sports-crazed Norway. Northug said, according to reports, that the episode would “follow me throughout my whole life.”

Here is the kicker:

The Norwegian Ski Assn., according to AP, said it would not punish Northug because his accident “had nothing to do with competition or training.”

The association president, Erik Roeste, told the Norwegian news agency NTB, “It’s not in sports regulations to punish him from our side in any way.”

So how did USA Swimming come to sanction Phelps?

Through Section 304.3.19 of its rule book.

It allows sanctions for “any other material and intentional act, conduct or omission not provided for above, which is detrimental to the image or reputation of USA Swimming, a LSC (local swimming committee) or the sport of swimming.”

Six days after Phelps’ arrest, USA Swimming announced it had suspended him for six months and he had withdrawn, by mutual agreement with the federation, from the U.S. team for the 2015 world championships in Kazan Russia. He also agreed to forfeit a $1,750 USA Swimming stipend for six months.

Phelps’ arrest came amid the controversies that have enveloped the NFL and stirred headlines since the video surfaced — on Sept. 8 — of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee in a casino elevator. You can be sure that played a part in the decision-making at USA Swimming.

The hammer came the day after Phelps announced he was headed to a six-week, in-patient treatment program.

Even if you decide that this arrest warrants sanction — that’s an entire column in and of itself — what was the goal here?

To penalize Phelps? Deter him or others? Rehabilitate him? Make sure he doesn’t drive drunk again? Send a message — to him, others on the national team or other swimmers in clubs across the United States?

Why was it so important to suspend Phelps when not even a week had passed?

Did acting so quickly make it more — or less — likely to achieve the objective? Which, again, was what?

Isn’t it more likely that we were all left with one obvious reality? That USA Swimming acted get itself out of the spotlight -- or, more precisely, to cover its backside amid media pressure?

So, now what?

Did anyone watch Ryan Lochte’s reality TV show? In the realm of possibility: were there off-camera escapades that might now bring embarrassment to USA Swimming? Do you think TMZ is asleep at that switch? Really?

Further, are we all willing to believe there isn’t even one coach affiliated with USA Swimming, or one athlete anywhere in the United States with a DUI that has yet to come to light? Truly? How soon before one such case emerges? Would any such case bring embarrassment to the federation? How much embarrassment?

You see how problematic this is?

What about this: reasonable people can agree to disagree about whether USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus should or should not have drawn so much criticism earlier this year when he was nominated for the International Swimming Hall of Fame amid concern the federation should have done more to prevent sexual abuse by coaches.

In June, Wielgus formally apologized — four years after saying on national TV that he had nothing to apologize for.

Phelps apologized, too, and in short order after arrest.

These two scenarios admittedly are in many ways apples and oranges. However, the question is nonetheless worth posing, especially if you're asking forthright questions: big-picture, which of the two holds the greater potential to embarrass USA Swimming -- Phelps' situation, or Wielgus'?

The federation, it must be acknowledged, has taken undeniably constructive steps in reordering its safe sport policies. At the same time, right or not, fair or not, Wielgus found himself this summer in an uncomfortable spot.

So why is Phelps getting six months plus the Worlds?

The problem is there is no spelled-out policy here. A catch-all is not good enough.

Another problem: there is inconsistency in the broader U.S. Olympic sphere.


Rule 4 of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Assn.’s code says: “USSA members shall maintain high standards of moral and ethical conduct, which includes self-control and responsible behavior, consideration for the physical and emotional well-being of others, and courtesy and good manners.”

In 2010, when then-USSA chief Bill Marolt was arrested for DUI — he took responsibility and apologized, just like Phelps — was he suspended? Hardly.

More current: Hope Solo, U.S. Soccer’s goaltender, is facing two counts of misdemeanor domestic violence linked to a June incident at Solo’s sister’s home in Kirkland, Washington.

In a September 23 Facebook post, Solo declared: “… I continue to maintain my innocence against these charges. And, once all the facts come to light and the legal process is concluded, I am confident that I will be fully exonerated.”

Not only has U.S. Soccer not suspended Solo, she has continued to play and, indeed, has once been honored with the captain’s armband.

USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun last month told USA Today, “Abuse in all forms is unacceptable. The allegations involving Ms. Solo are disturbing and are inconsistent with our expectations of Olympians. We have had discussions with U.S. Soccer and fully expect them to take action if it is determined that the allegations are true.”

Three things:

The reason U.S. Soccer hasn’t moved is because you can bet there would be a counter-move rooted in the 1978 Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act.

Solo’s case is yet to be decided in the courts. Yet USA Swimming took action even though Phelps’ matter is only at the arrest stage. He, just like Solo, is due the presumption of innocence.

Finally, this suspension was pushed through when Phelps was on his way to treatment. The skeptic might say Phelps is going to treatment in a bid to prove to the courts that he’s being proactive. Or maybe he is, genuinely, recognizing that, at 29, he needs help, and now is the time to get it.

The difference between the Solo and Phelps cases is that Phelps accepted the suspension. Query: on his way to six weeks away, did he really have any choice? Was he really going to fight that fight? Right then and there?

Now that it’s all said and done, maybe everyone ought to take a deep breath.


At the least, USA Swimming has gone one step too far with Phelps.

On the one hand, six months is arguably thoroughly arbitrary. For legal purposes, the first DUI is absolutely, totally irrelevant. (To show you further how arbitrary: what if Phelps were photographed now with his face in a bong pipe in Colorado, where -- along with Washington state -- pot is legal? Colorado, of all places, home of USA Swimming and the USOC. Things evolve.)

On the other, you can make a pretty strong argument for six months. Let’s be plain: there’s no excusing drunk driving and Phelps is profoundly lucky no one got hurt, or worse. Phelps’ blood-alcohol level was, again, 0.14, and that was not in the field — that was after he had been taken to the police station. He likely had to have been doing some serious drinking. A 200-pound male, about what Phelps weighs, would had to have had 12 drinks to blow a 0.152 after four hours of drinking, according to this chart.

Assuming there’s no wiggle room with the six months, the crux of what really ought to be at issue is the Worlds. Why beat Phelps up over the Worlds? It’s not at all clear that, after six weeks away from the pool, he would even be ready. But it’s just as easy to make the argument that he would be an asset post-treatment to the American team as not — after all, he was a veteran leader in London two years ago, and has increasingly related to younger swimmers.

Here’s one proposal:

After Phelps is done with his six-week, in-patient treatment program, and his court date is through, assuming a conviction but no custody time, he might consider moving to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. He could eat, sleep, train and focus on nothing but himself and swimming — under the watch of USA Swimming and the USOC and, perhaps most important, the longtime "mom" at the training center, an old friend, Sherry Von Riesen.

If he proved himself a model citizen, then the ban on the Worlds could be rescinded.

Phelps has had only one coach, Bob Bowman. Bowman is in Baltimore. There would have to be some workarounds. Bowman could perhaps come to Colorado every couple weeks. There could be Skype sessions.

All this — Phelps as resident at the USOC training center, with no driving privileges for some period of time — could even be part of a court-ordered probationary term. Creative minds, you know, and all that.

Of course, this all assumes Phelps wants to keep swimming competitively. That is a big if. Post-treatment, who knows?


USA Swimming should strongly consider re-framing its policy for what is “detrimental to the image or reputation” of the federation. That is way, way, way too vague, and likely susceptible to serious legal challenge.

The other NGBs should take a look at what's going down here, too.

Arbitrary policy-making done in a rush is not constructive strategy. It may get you out of a jam. Or make it feel like you’re out. But not really. Life is way too complex. There’s always another turn, and it’s always unexpected.


What's next for Michael Phelps


Michael Phelps is not a bad guy. Let’s start there. In fact, he’s a really, really good guy. He cares — deeply — about his family, his coaches, the people who have been with him for years, his hometown, his country and his sport. He is, genuinely, great with kids. He is, truly, a normal guy who found a genius for swimming and competing.

By driving drunk, according to the allegations levied against him by the authorities in Maryland, Michael made a really bad mistake. Perhaps the hardest piece: Michael has said many, many times, often to audiences of kids, that it’s OK to make a mistake — the trick is not to make the same mistake twice. Now, in the wake of his DUI problem 10 years ago, he has made the very same mistake, all over again.

The separate DUI incidents — of course, Michael is entitled to the presumption of innocence in regard to his arrest this week — are compounded by the 2009 episode in which he was photographed with his face in a bong.

Phelps was stopped at 1:40 a.m. Tuesday after leaving the brand-new Horseshoe Casino in downtown Baltimore, allegedly going 84 in a 45 zone. His blood-alcohol level was a reported 0.14, above the legal limit of 0.08.

The incident leads to all manner of questions, concerns and what-to-do’s — for Michael, USA Swimming, the U.S. Olympic Committee, Michael’s sponsors and everyone anywhere with an interest in the greatest Olympic athlete of all time.

That is, indisputably, what Michael is.

And that, actually, is at the core of all of this.

Former Baltimore Ravens defensive back Ed Reed, left, with Michael Phelps at M&T Bank Stadium last month // photo Getty Images

Michael is 29 now. Old enough, assuredly smart enough to know better, to have the judgment to call Uber. A taxi. A friend. Something or someone.

Michael’s first DUI came when he was 19, in November 2004, after the Athens Games. At that time in his life, as he has said, post-Games he had no structure, no routine. He was on a road trip to Maryland’s Eastern Shore with a friend. He had three beers. His blood-alcohol reading was precisely 0.08.

He pleaded guilty a month later in Salisbury, Maryland, to driving while impaired; was ordered to pay $305 in fines and court costs; to attend a meeting of Mothers Against Drunk Driving; and to speak at a number of schools about drinking, driving and decision-making.

USA Swimming did not suspend him.

The experience would lead Michael to Greg Harden, the longtime associate athletic director and director of athletic counseling at the University of Michigan. Harden gave Michael the advice that Michael would internalize, would make his own, would repeat as if it were a mantra:

It’s OK to make a mistake. Whenever you make a mistake, learn from it. If you learn from a mistake, you’ll be fine. Just don’t make the same mistake twice.

Among the challenges Michael is facing is that he has now violated his own code.

Michael and I worked together on his 2008 best-selling book and for sure we have long had a constructive relationship. We have not spoken this week. But I know him well enough to feel confident that no one feels worse about what happened than Michael.

I know, too, that he will deal with whatever is to come forthrightly. That is his way.

The issue is, what is appropriate?

Michael is a Baltimore guy through and through. He spent a few years in Ann Arbor, prepping for the 2008 Beijing Olympics while his longtime coach and mentor, Bob Bowman, was the head coach at the university. But now they are both back in Baltimore.

Michael is not — will never be — Hollywood. He is, for emphasis, a normal guy. He is happy to be in Baltimore, cheering on his Ravens like most everybody else there.

The deal is this, though: it may not be the best time to be a high-profile athlete facing the bar of justice in Baltimore, what with Ray Rice in the news. Under the law, Michael’s first DUI is irrelevant. At the same time, Michael has to accept that he might draw a judge who wants to make an example of him.

Beyond the legal ramifications, there is the matter of USA Swimming, indeed the Olympic establishment.

USA Swimming suspended him for three months for the 2009 episode. Now?

USA Today’s Christine Brennan suggested in a column Wednesday that Michael ought to be suspended for at least a year. She called his behavior “unconscionable.”

With due respect to my good friend Christine — she and I are from the same class at the Northwestern journalism school— her suggestion is over the top.

To compare:

The NFL suspended Donté Stallworth for a year after he pleaded guilty to DUI manslaughter charges in Florida. On March 14, 2009, in Miami, Stallworth killed a man while driving drunk.

To be clear, driving while impaired — again, Phelps is innocent until proven guilty — is bad no matter the circumstance.

In Stallworth’s case, for context, Stallworth’s blood-alcohol level was 0.126 and, of course, Mario Reyes, a construction worker who was simply trying to catch a bus home, is forever gone.

A prosecution video in the Stallworth case shows Stallworth braking immediately after Reyes ran into the street, outside the crosswalk — meaning, Stallworth has said, that even if sober he likely would have hit Reyes. But as Stallworth said in an interview this past summer, “.. I was wrong. I was driving under the influence and should not have been.”

Now, the argument is that Phelps should be gone for a year when no one -- luckily, true -- got hurt?

Things have to remain in proportion.

USA Swimming has said it’s assessing the situation.

It seems probable that Michael is going to be fined — other athletes are going to want to see that no one is above the rules, especially Michael — and suspended for some period of time. The issue is when and for how long. The 2015 world championships are next summer in Russia.

This leads to the crux of the matter, for all involved.

Michael has a boredom problem. The boredom problem creates a structure problem. The overarching problem is that there's a future problem.

It’s little wonder he is out presumably playing poker — which he enjoys — and, as he purportedly said to the police, having three or four drinks when he should have been in bed getting ready to swim.

Again, here is the deal:

Michael is the greatest of all time. He has 22 Olympic medals.

In Beijing, he went eight-for-eight. It was — incredible.

To do what he did in Beijing took years of monumental discipline, effort, focus and training. (Not to mention an awe-inspiring back-end split from Jason Lezak in the 400-meter freestyle relay.) Who wants to do that all over again? For sure not Michael.

This is the dilemma.

Michael knows that if he puts in the work that he can again be the world’s best swimmer — in certain races. But never again will he do what he did in Beijing. This is a terrible burden. For real. What must it be like to be great but never again as across-the-board great as you once were?

Michael talks about setting new goals. But swimming is the most relentlessly revealing of the Olympic sports. At the elite level, the sport is merciless in making clear whether an athlete has put in the work. You win -- or lose -- by hundredths of a second.

This is, in one fashion or another, what Michael has been wrestling with since the day the Beijing Games ended.

You saw it in 2011, at the world championships in Shanghai, where Ryan Lochte had put in the work, and Michael had not. In 2012, Michael tried the 400-meter individual medley, which he used to rule, and didn’t even medal — because he hadn’t trained sufficiently.

After the 400 IM, it became plain in London that Michael had done enough — just enough — to still star. But because he hadn’t really done everything he could have, he got out-touched by five-hundredths of a second in the 200 butterfly by Chad le Clos of South Africa — an ending that depended on feel in the water, feel that Phelps would have had, did have, in the 100 fly in Beijing, which he won by one-hundredth of a second over Serbia’s Milorad Cavic.

After London, Michael said, enough.

Then he watched the Americans come up short in the 400 free relay at the 2013 worlds in Barcelona and something stirred.

So he kinda-sorta came back.

Then, this year, he came back for real — and did very well at the Pan-Pacific championships in August in Australia, winning three gold medals and two silvers.

The good thing about the comeback is it gives Michael structure. He needs that sort of structure.

But obviously he's not yet all-in. On the road at 1:40 a.m.?

At the same time, and this must be said, this comeback is only prolonging the inevitable.

If Michael keeps swimming through 2016, it seems hugely unlikely that he would not make the U.S. team for Rio. Everyone says, like this is a bad thing, he’d be 31 by the start of those Games, in August, 2016. So what? He’s Michael. He's the best-ever. If he wants it, he will do it -- emphasis on the if.

Who, though, is Michael? Really, who is he? Not Michael the swimmer. Michael Phelps. At 29, who is he? And what is he all about?

Michael should take a good look at the guy looking back at him in the mirror and say, OK, what's the next chapter?

If he can do that, this DUI episode could — in a weird way — turn out to be a huge positive. Again, Michael should count his blessings that no one got hurt. He should not just count this as, but legitimately come to see this as, a second chance -- at everything.

He has it all, you say?

Not really. Michael doesn't know what he wants to do with himself.

When Michael was 16, he had the audacity to tell Peter Carlisle, who would go on to be his agent — still is his agent — that his goal was to grow the sport of swimming. He could see that already.

He hasn’t been able with the same clarity to articulate anything else. That’s where the drift has come. Now is the time to figure it out — especially if there is to be a suspension.

It seems reasonable to assume that, however this shakes out, Michael is going to find himself doing community service. And part of that service will involve speaking to kids. And those kids are going to ask, Michael, you always said it was OK to make a mistake but not to make it twice — what do you say now?

And if the other part of the code is learning from every mistake -- what are the lessons from this one?

Now is the time to figure all this out. Because that is a huge part of this next chapter. Of being accountable to himself and to everyone around him -- because he is normal, and yet in some respects his life is not normal and likely never will be. Of figuring out who Michael Phelps is, and what his next direction holds.

Michael Phelps as work in progress


Michael Phelps had it Friday morning, turning in a sensational prelim swim. He didn’t quite have it Friday night when it counted, losing by one-hundredth of a second in the 100 butterfly to Tom Shields at the U.S. national championships in Irvine, California. The upshot: Phelps is back on the national team. For him, for the U.S. team, for swimming in general, that’s all good. Now, though, the real work begins. As Bob Bowman, his longtime coach, said Friday night, “I think he needs to go home and put in some more practices.”

All that is going to have to wait until after the Pan Pacific championships later this summer in Australia, when the Phelps phenomenon goes overseas — in essence, more under-the-spotlight practice time for Phelps to work on his 100 fly, 100 freestyle, 100 backstroke and 200 individual medley. There may be moments of greatness. There also may be moments of, say what?

Remember, these nationals were only the fifth meet of the Phelps comeback after a 20-month competitive layoff.

Michael Phelps after finishing second in the men's 100 fly at the U.S. nationals // photo Getty Images

The race Friday night not only marked Phelps’ best chance to get back onto the international stage for the next two years — a quirk of the USA Swimming rules for this summer’s Pan Pacs and, presumably, next year’s world championships in Russia — it also underscored just how much more work lies ahead for Phelps himself before the 2016 Rio Olympics and, as well, how much better swimming itself has gotten in the two years since the London Games without him and, of course, directly because of him.

Phelps had finished seventh in the 100 free on Wednesday, missing the turn in the shadows.

He has other races on the program: the 100 backstroke and 200 individual medley.

Phelps is the London 2012 200 IM champion. But that race is altogether a different sort of test for someone who has been back at it for months, not years.

And the 100 fly has been one of his mainstays.

Phelps is the gold medalist in the 100 fly at the last three Olympic Games and, moreover, at the 2007, 2009 and 2011 world championships.

He is the world-record holder in the event, 49.82, set in a memorable duel at the 2009 Rome worlds with Milorad Cavic.

Phelps is of course the holder of 22 Olympic medals, 18 of them gold.

What gets obscured in the glare of all that gold, however, is what it took to get there, and an elemental premise:

Swimming is hard.

Not to say other sports aren’t.

But at the elite level, swimming always — to repeat, always — reveals whether a racer has put in the work.

This is what Phelps learned, to his detriment, at the Shanghai worlds in 2011. He had not put in the work. Ryan Lochte had. Lochte had an awesome meet. Phelps, to be gracious, did not. Phelps acknowledged as much, and put in just enough to come back in London to win six more medals, then go on his retirement tour.

Now he is back.

The Phelps who went eight-for-eight in Beijing was a guy who over the years put in ferocious amounts of work. He and Bowman famously did not take off weekends or holidays.

With two years now until Rio, the question now in front of Phelps and Bowman is elemental. The work is there to be done. Will it?

Phelps’ legacy is assured. He is the greatest Olympic athlete of not just our time but all time. What he chooses to do is up to him.

Before these recent meets, he has acknowledged nerves — very un-Phelps like. And he knows why, too, saying it’s because he hasn’t put in the training to feel ready to do what’s necessary. That training not only lends fitness, it gives him a feel for what’s what — so, for instance, he doesn’t glide turns, like he did in Friday’s final.

Shields, the winner already here of the 200 fly, finished the 100 in 51.29.

Phelps touched in 51.30, done in by nerves and by a crummy turn mid-way. Typically, Phelps takes 16 strokes in the first half of the 100 fly. This time, it was 16 strokes and a glide before the turn. That cost him.

After the race, Phelps said, “Bob and I were talking: if I want to go 50-point, or if I want to go better, I need more. I need more training. I need more endurance. I need to feel more comfort with my stroke. There are just a lot of things that need to happen. I understand that.”

Bowman: “It’s not fitness. It’s the knowledge that he’s getting up there against these other guys who are on fire and he knows what he has done to get here. And it ain’t what he used to do to get here.”

Phelps also said, “I just felt out of it, not my normal self at finals.

“Normally, I’m very relaxed, very ready. Like Bob said, it’s probably because I’m not used to being in this kind of shape, I guess, shape or this kind of feeling going into a meet. Normally, I can look back and say I’ve done all the training, I’ve done everything I’ve needed to do to prepare myself. You know, with having a year and a half off, and maybe not really going as hard as I probably should have at some of the parts during the year, it shows. And that’s something I understand.

“There are things like this that help me and motivate more than anything else. I’m somebody who can’t stand to lose. I don’t care if it’s by a hundredth or five seconds … I can not stand to lose. This will definitely motivate me … this will definitely be something that sticks with me over the next year leading up to, hopefully, world championships.”

Two years until Rio seems like a long time. It is. And yet — it’s not.

Before this meet, Phelps acknowledged that his swimming and fitness are still very much a work in progress.

When he got back into the water, he said, he was 30 pounds overweight. So he cut out red meat for six months. When did that end? “I pretty much just ended it.”

His freestyle had “been off over the last couple of weeks,” Phelps said, Bowman elaborating that “we always did everything for a 200 before, and then the 100 kind of came out of that, and now we’ve been really trying to do it for a 100 and it’s not — he’s just getting used to that, the tempo and stuff of it.”

Asked about doing a longer race, like a 200 free, Phelps said, “I’m not anywhere close to being able to swim that race at the level I would want to swim it at.”

The thing is, while Phelps is working his way back, the world is not going to be standing still. Shields said Friday night that he had grown up — nearby, in Huntington Beach, California — “worshipping” the likes of Phelps and Ryan Lochte, watching them on TV six years ago in Beijing.

Tom Shields, winner of both the 200 and 100 butterfly events at the U.S. nationals

Now he and many, many others are absolutely wanting to take down Phelps or, for that matter, anyone.

Five years ago, in Rome, 43 world records went down. This was at the height of the plastic-suit craze. The experts thought some records might stand for 20 or more years.

Now, it seems, each and every record is potentially at risk.


Because, in large measure, Phelps has inspired a huge new wave of talent.

And what did Phelps always say was his primary goal, above all else? To grow the sport. So he has only himself to thank for the enhanced competition.

Reading out the start lists from the 100 fly final: six of the eight guys swam lifetime bests in the prelims. Phelps and Lochte — who would finish fifth Friday night — were the only two who did not.

Phelps even noted it, saying after the morning swim, “As soon as Ryan and I saw those guys go 51, we were like, what is this? Can’t we have an easy morning? But I guess we just have to go every time.”

All Phelps did in the morning swim was go 51.17, the fastest time in the world in 2014 — 12-hundredths faster than Chad le Clos’ time at the Commonwealth Games.

For comparison, Phelps’ morning swim was faster than the 51.21 he went to win the London 2012 100 fly final.

Along the way, Phelps is going to throw out glimmers like this.

The trick for Phelps — as he and Bowman acknowledged Friday night — is for those one-offs to become consistent.

The plain fact is that Phelps makes everyone around him better. Most of the time that’s evident through the times themselves. Sometimes it’s simply race strategy and getting the opportunity to swim with the best swimmer in the world — the best of all time — just once.

That famous 10,000-hour rule? The one that says it takes you 10,000 hours to become an expert in something? In swim terms, swimming next to Phelps just once, either in practice or a race, and you experience the 10,000-hour rule in less than a minute.

Now it’s on Phelps to, once more, make himself better. This is the hardest trick there is. But also the most satisfying, the most rewarding.

“As he gets back into it, he’ll be good,” Bowman said. “As he does some more work, he’ll be good. More confidence. More prepared.”


For one night, no Phelps magic


Before Michael Phelps had won even the first of his 22 Olympic medals he was, in 2003, the United States men’s national champion in the 100-meters freestyle. The circle turns. It’s back to the future. Pick your metaphor as the 2014 U.S. nationals got underway in earnest Wednesday in Irvine, California, with Phelps stepping to the blocks for the finals of the 100 free.

To expect Phelps to win everything — at least right now, this soon into his comeback — is perhaps a bit too much. Phelps would naturally expect so. But when Nathan Adrian is in the race, and Adrian is not only the London 2012 Olympic 100 gold medalist but the man who since 2009 has won either or both the 50 and 100 at the national level, something’s got to give.

Michael Phelps after finishing seventh in the men's 100 free at the U.S. nationals // photo Getty Images

And it’s not just Adrian.

Anthony Ervin was in the race as well. Ervin is an Olympic gold medalist sprinter, too, the 50 champ from Sydney 2000. In the morning prelims, both Adrian and Ervin had gone faster than Phelps.

Also in the race: Jimmy Feigen, silver medalist in the 100 at last year’s world championships in Barcelona and an Olympic relay medalist.

Not to mention Matt Grevers (multiple Olympic medalist), Ryan Lochte (multiple Olympic medalist), Conor Dwyer (silver medalist, 200, Barcelona, as well as Olympic relay gold medalist); and Seth Stubblefield.

Stubblefield was the only non-Olympian in the field. How would you like to have been Seth Stubblefield Wednesday evening?

This was big-boy swimming, for sure.

This, too, is all part of the master plan now seemingly fully in motion, aiming toward Rio 2016, two years from now.

Phelps and his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, keep saying they’re just taking it bit by bit, day by day. Maybe so. Then again, the day before the U.S. nationals began, they announced a new deal with Aqua Sphere, and logic says that deal can only be enhanced if Phelps is swimming on the international stage in Brazil, right?

Right now it would seem abundantly obvious that Phelps and Bowman are in the midst of finding out if they can remake Phelps 2.0 as Phelps the way he was, at least in part, the way he was way back when.

In Irvine, he was entered in the 100 free, 100 back, 100 butterfly and 200 individual medley.

Part of this is because Phelps is now 29. It’s exceedingly unlikely he would, at least right now, put up with the wear and tear on his body it would require to, say, swim the 400 IM anymore.

Part of this is because having done everything there is to do in his other races he likely needs to challenge himself in different ways.

“There are always things that I still want to do and want to achieve, and that’s part of the reason why I’m still here,” he told reporters before the meet got going. “You’re not going to get what it is. You guys know me too well.”

Mel Stewart, the 1992 200 fly gold medalist who can now be found at, opined recently that without the 400 IM, “a 46-plus 100m freestyle and 49 plus 100m butterfly could be in the cards by the 2016 Olympic Games," meaning, for instance, 46-plus seconds in the 100. The world record in the 100 is currently 46.91, held by Brazil's Cesar Cielo, set at the Rome 2009 world championships.

Then again, Stewart said, let’s stay in the moment.

Stewart said he expects lifetime bests for Phelps either in Irvine or, later this summer, at the Pan Pacific championships in Australia.

This, then, is the thing about these U.S. nationals, which many are overlooking in the glare of the Phelps comeback. It is, above all, a set-up meet for the Pan Pacs and, beyond, for the 2015 world championships in Russia.

The point is not to peak in Irvine. You saw that when Katie Ledecky flirted with the world record in the women’s 800 Wednesday evening, then let off the gas before winning in 8:18.47.

The competition in Irvine is ferocious. It was evident, for instance, in the men’s 100 free, where no fewer than 32 guys went under 50 seconds in Wednesday morning’s prelims. Last year, in Indianapolis, before the off-year Barcelona worlds, there were only 17.

Even so, while racing is always racing, the deal in Irvine is to make the U.S. team and to keep one’s eye on the longer-range prize.

Before Irvine, Phelps this year had raced in only two 100 free finals — one in Santa Clara, California, in June, the other last month in Athens, Georgia.

The prelims Wednesday morning were strikingly like the Santa Clara race. There, in a time of 48.8, he finished second to Adrian. The first 50 meters Phelps swam 23.73. The second, 25.07. On Wednesday morning, Phelps went 23.98. The second 50, Phelps, as has been his pattern through the years, turned it on to go 24.79, the only guy in the field in the back half to break 25. All in: 48.77.

The only thing is, Adrian had gone 48.24. Adrian had gone out the first 50 meters in a speedy 22.63. As Adrian would say later, “I had to be out really, really fast to make sure Michael couldn’t somehow find a way to be out of my wake, to be really hurting at the very end.”

Even so, he stressed, his race strategy was hardly all Phelps: “It wasn’t just Michael. There are a lot of people who are going fast.”

In another heat, Ervin went 48.71.

In the finals, Ervin drew Lane 5, Adrian 4, Phelps 3. Lochte was all the way out there in 8, Feigen in 2.

Phelps got to the turn four-tenths faster than he did in the morning, at 23.58. But then it all fell apart. He missed the wall, didn’t execute his turn properly and struggled to the finish in 49.17 — good only for seventh.

Adrian won, in 48.31. Lochte took second, in 48.96. Feigen got third, in 48.98.

In all, a slow race, and perhaps a cause for concern going forward for the 4x100 relay, where times need to be in the 47s to be competitive. Adrian said afterward, “We know as a whole that group of eight guys is much faster than what we showed in the pool tonight.”

Phelps’ finals time was four-tenths slower than he had gone in the morning. The prelim swim would have gotten him silver behind Adrian but, you know, that’s not how it works.

“I’m really interested to see what the replay looks like because going into the wall I felt like I had set myself up for a good one just based on where I was in comparison to Nathan,” Phelps said, “and I thought I had the right distance to go into the wall and when I literally took a couple kicks and I barely passed the flags I knew there was very little chance that I was going to run anybody down.

“So it’s kind of frustrating but, you know, I never really know where we are in that race right now. I felt really good after the morning swim besides the first 50 and I felt good in the warmup pool getting ready for tonight. It just kind of stinks that I missed the first wall but it’s a part of racing and there is going to be another chance to swim that race in a couple weeks. I’m just trying to get a spot on the team and go from there.”

Lochte added, “He said he missed the turn. I saw it, because when I flipped, I looked under water and saw him. Things happen. He is going to fix it and make sure it never happens again.” 

What happened Wednesday evening matters, of course, because you can hardly remember the last time Phelps was not on the podium in a national meet. At the same time, Rio is still two years away.

Also, 2003 is a long time back. And, as Rowdy Gaines put it on the Universal Sports telecast, Phelps is “still learning.” Even the greatest Olympic swimmer of all time doesn’t just get back into the water and beat everyone, especially when everyone is so much better than they used to be — thanks in large measure to Phelps, who has inspired a generation.

As Gaines also said, “It’s going to take some time to get back into this.”


Phelps having fun, and it's all good

Thirty years ago, amid the delivery of the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games, which proved a huge success, Peter Ueberroth reminded the world of a classic strategy. It works in business. It works in sports. Really, it’s the best strategy for pretty much everything. You under-promise and then you over-deliver.

This is what Michael Phelps and his longtime coach and mentor, Bob Bowman, are doing now in these very first days of the comeback story likely to dominate every swimming story between now and the Rio Summer 2016 Olympic Games.

Michael Phelps diving in for his first race back -- over Ryan Lochte, who would go on to win the 100 fly final later Thursday night // photo Getty Images

Michael’s goals? Fun, man. Just here to have fun. 2016? Whatever. Not thinking that far ahead. Just taking it one step at a time. We’ll get there when we get there.

It’s completely shrewd, sophisticated and dazzling in its brilliance.

After years of chasing hard goals — eight-for-eight golds in Beijing, the gymnast Larisa Latynina’s record of 18 overall medals in London — there’s nothing left for Phelps to prove to anyone. He is The Man, and has absolutely, unequivocally earned the right to do this on his own terms.

The thing is, it’s also true.


Because, for sure, Phelps has goals. He always has goals.

As he said Wednesday at a news conference, “I always have goals and things that I want to achieve and I have things that I want to achieve now. Bob and I can do anything that we put our minds to.”

Because, for real, Phelps and Bowman assuredly have not through every detail of what the master plan is to get to and through Rio. No way, no how.


Because it’s April 2014 and they don’t have to.

All Phelps — and Bowman— have to do, right now, is enough to keep the train moving.

Which, as Phelps proved Thursday in sun-blinded Mesa, Arizona, is plenty good enough.

In his first race back after 628 days away, since his butterfly leg in the gold medal-winning leg in the 4x100 medley relay at London 2012 Games, Phelps was put in the last of the 14 heats in the 100 fly.

Phelps watched as rival Ryan Lochte, in Heat 13, went 52.94.

Lochte swam in Lane 4. Phelps drew Lane 4, too. The two of them yukked it up about something as Phelps stepped on the blocks — maybe the absurdity of a jillion cameras recording every move Phelps was making while Lochte, still in the water below, got to watch while Phelps dove over him as Heat 14 got underway.

All Phelps did in Heat 14 was throw down a 52.84, the morning’s fastest time.

Yeah. He was back.

“I felt like a kid, you know, being able to race again and be back at a meet,” Phelps told longtime friend Rowdy Gaines, the 1984 Olympic champion in Mesa working television for Universal Sports.

“I literally felt like a 10-year-old kid, just enjoying it,” Phelps said, which is great, except that the next time a 10-year-old kid throws a 52.8 in the 100 fly please call USA Swimming because that kid needs to be in the Olympics immediately.

The only thing that didn’t go according to script: Phelps usually lags behind the field in the first 50 meters, often making the turn in seventh place. On Thursday morning, he was second. He split the first 50 in 25.15 seconds, the second in 27.69.

All you doubters? Haters? Come on. This is Phelps. He is one of the most competitive human beings ever to inhabit Planet Earth. Did you think he was somehow going to forget how to race?

Especially in the 100 fly, the event in which he is the three-time Olympic champion as well as the world and American record-holder.

This is what Phelps does, and better than anyone, and especially in the butterfly — which is what he is likely to concentrate on going forward.

Do you think — just riffing here — that he would want to try going forward to make amends for the 200 fly in London, a race he seemingly had won but then glided at the end when he shouldn’t have, and South Africa’s Chad le Clos stole by five-hundredths of a second?

Wouldn’t that — just being logical — be a “goal and thing … to achieve now”?

The 200 fly is the Phelps family race; older sister, Whitney, came into the 1996 U.S. Trials in Indianapolis with the best time in the country in the event, and younger brother Michael is a two-time Olympic champion, one of those wins, in Beijing, a then-world record 1:52.03, set with his goggles filled with water.

As amazing as the eight-for-eight is, and it is, the 100 fly three-peat —which by comparison bizarrely gets almost no love — is a profound accomplishment, because that race is so short and in it anything — as the 2008 final, won by one-hundredth of a second, proves — can happen.

Now that 200 fly three-peat is still out there.

Of course, no decisions have been made, or at least announced publicly. It’s possible the 200 individual medley might yet appear on the agenda, too. Or the 100 free. Who knows? Again, and for emphasis: it’s very early.

The prelim set Phelps and Lochte up for Thursday night’s 100 fly final.

Lochte had himself a way busier evening than Phelps. He first swam the 100 free, finishing fourth, in 49.68, behind 2012 Olympic gold medalist Nathan Adrian’s 48.23.

Adrian’s 48.23 will get lost in the swirl but it shouldn’t. It’s the start of the American season and it’s already the third-best time in the world in 2014 — two Australians, James Magnussen, 47.59, and Cameron McEvoy, 47.65, have gone faster, and the Aussies have already had their national championships.

Adrian won by more than a second; South Africa’s Roland Schoeman finished second, in 49.39.

Another race destined to get missed by all but the most hardy swim geeks — about a half-hour after that 100 free, Katie Ledecky swam the women’s 400 free in 4:03.84, which equaled the world’s best time in 2014. Afterward, she wasn’t even breathing hard.

Lochte got done with the 100 free at 5:11 p.m. local time.

The men’s 100 fly started an hour later.

Once again, at the turn, Phelps — in Lane 4 — was second, in 24.76.

This time, Lochte — in Lane 5 — was first, in 24.64.

The Phelps M.O. over the years has been to pour it on in the back half. Lochte knows this.

In Phelps' first competitive final of 2014, it wasn’t there. Lochte held Phelps off, winning in 51.93. Phelps touched second, in 52.13.

Give Lochte credit. That 51.93 was the second-best time in the world in 2014. Only Takuro Fujii, with a 51.84 at the Japanese nationals, has gone faster.

Phelps, meanwhile, with 52.13, is tied for fourth-best in 2014. Already.

“Down there at the turn, I kind of peeked over, I saw him, and I almost started smiling,” Lochte said in a poolside interview with Gaines that was broadcast live over the PA system in Mesa as well.

“Why? Because you were winning? Because you were ahead?” Phelps said, and everyone laughed.

Gaines, turning to Phelps, asked, what now?

“I’m my hardest critic,” Phelps said, “so I know what I can do there. But, like I have been saying this whole time, I am having fun. I really do mean that. There’s nothing like coming here, swimming before a packed stands — they’re cheering us on, helping us get through the race.

“Obviously, being back in the water with Ryan, it’s always fun when we race. Neither one of us wants to lose to each other. But that’s what makes us faster and faster each time.”

The interview actually began with Gaines asking Lochte if he had noticed anything different about swimming Thursday in Mesa — what with, you know, Phelps back.

Lochte laughed. He said, “I mean, especially this morning, seeing all these cameras, right before I’m about to race — I’m like, ‘Thanks, Michael.’ “

Phelps is back. Lochte, too, from that freaky knee injury.

Jeah, dudes.

For U.S. swimming, it’s all good.


Phelps is back, and why not

A great many people are desperately afraid in this life of failure. Being afraid does only one thing. It holds you back.

Michael Phelps is not, has never been, afraid of failure. He has the courage to dream big dreams -- dreams without limits, without worries about what might happen if they don't come true. 

Michael Phelps in the pool Wednesday in Mesa, Arizona // photo Getty Images

Phelps is indisputably the greatest swimmer of all time. There can be no argument. As he steps on the blocks Thursday at the Mesa Grand Prix, having said at the London 2012 Olympics that he was done swimming competitively but now having changed his mind, the natural question is, why, and the one that goes with it for so many is, but isn’t he afraid of damaging his reputation?

The second one first: no.

For Michael Phelps, this is absolutely opportunity, and nothing but.

This is, in plain speech, what sets greatness apart.

Maybe Phelps won’t win every race between now and the close of the 2016 Rio Games.

Strike that. It’s guaranteed that he won’t, starting with the series this weekend in Arizona.

So what?

It does not matter.

For Phelps, what matters is the opportunity to test himself, to see how good he can be.

As he said Wednesday at a news conference, “I’m doing this for me," adding a moment later, "I am looking forward to wherever this road takes me."

Phelps has never — again, never ever never — said, “I want to win x medals.”

He has always said his goals are to grow the sport of swimming and to be the very best he can be.

His impact is broad and deep:

-- The caliber of athletes in the sport is so much better. Guys coming into college are now swimming the 200 freestyle roughly two seconds faster than they did even just a few years ago. Why? Because they watched Phelps swim, whether in 2004 in Athens or 2008 in Beijing, and said to their parents, that guy is awesome and I want to be like that.

-- The U.S. team has its leader back. As great as Missy Franklin or Katie Ledecky are, and they are, and as fantastic an athlete as Ryan Lochte is, and he is, Phelps is incomparable. He makes everyone better.


This is a guy who loves to race. He loves to win. He hates to lose.

So why, after proving without a shadow of a doubt — 22 Olympic medals, 18 of them gold — is he back once more to see how good he can be?

Wrong question.

It’s not why,

It’s why not?

Phelps is 28. He turns 29 in July.

When he was in his early teens, just getting started with his coach and mentor Bob Bowman, Phelps would do what Bowman told him to do because, well, Bowman told him to do it. In Athens in 2004, when he won eight medals, six gold, same. In 2008 in Beijing, when they hatched the plan that led to the eight-for-eight gold, same.

By the 2011 world championships in Shanghai, that didn’t work so much anymore. Phelps had already achieved the unthinkable in Beijing; in Shanghai, he acknowledged he needed to find motivation.

In short, that’s what Phelps said by the end of the Games in London; he didn’t have the same motivation.

Though elemental, this is essential to understand: swimming is hard work, arguably the hardest Olympic sport there is, because it is often decided by hundredths of a second and it reveals, truly reveals, whether you have put in the work. That’s what Phelps learned in Shanghai. He hadn’t done the work and at that meet Lochte owned him.

By London, Phelps had done the work in every race but -- as the results emphatically showed -- the 400 individual medley. Indeed, that race proves the point. Phelps swam it because he wanted the test, caring not at all about the prospect of "failure," if fourth place at the Olympics is "failure." The instant know-it-all critics who started braying that Phelps might be done? It was his first final of the Games and, as he said immediately afterward, "It was just a crappy race." He would go on to win six medals.

Michael Phelps at the 2012 London Olympics // photo Getty Images

After London? Time to take time off.


The intense competitive drive that makes Phelps who he is has not gone away. It never did. As if. Phelps has a lot of guys who want to hang out with him. That doesn’t fill him up. That might be good for a weekend, or a week.

Golf? For fun — sure. As an everyday thing? Come on.

Let’s get one thing perfectly straight, and for all time: Phelps is super-smart and, for that matter, multitasks as well as any CEO. He is not, nearing 29, going to go to college; when he was training in Michigan before the 2008 Games, he was not working toward a four-year degree (though he is a big Maize and Blue fan).

Swimming, from the time he was little, not only provided Phelps with structure. Fundamentally, it gave him purpose.

Again —for Phelps, swimming was the ultimate provider of structure in his world. Then and now, it provides him a base of friends. Too, it offers a coach and staff with guidance.

The realization Phelps doubtlessly has arrived at now, in 2014, is that he isn’t coming to Bowman and the North Baltimore Aquatic Club because he has to.

He wants to.

That makes all the difference.

Phelps said Wednesday he weighed 187 pounds in 2012 in London. Afterward, he allowed himself to get to 225. Now he's at 194.

Bowman has assembled at the club a world-class roster that includes the likes of French sprinter Yannick Agnel; American sprinter Conor Dwyer; Tunisian long-distance ace Ous Mellouli; and more.

If you know Phelps, however, you know that for him now training has to be more fun than less. And for him the person who most often makes training fun is Allison Schmitt, who is, among other things, the London 2012 women’s 200-meter gold medalist.

Schmitt, who moved to Baltimore last year after finishing up at the University of Georgia, is making something of a comeback herself. She had a crummy nationals and — to everyone’s shock — missed making the U.S. team that swam at the 2013 world championships in Barcelona.

Phelps and Schmitt have always had something of a brother-sister relationship. They make each other laugh. He’s good for her. She’s good for him.

"I can't say it enough," he said Wednesday. "I am having fun."

As for those 2013 worlds — it was there, in Barcelona, that it became evident to everyone who knows swimming that Phelps would be back.

The only question was when.

The U.S. men’s 4x100 freestyle relay team lost to the French — with Agnel. Having Phelps sure would have helped. He was in the stands that day, texting Bowman, the U.S. men’s 2013 coach, critiques of the race. Phelps takes enormous pride in team and country, and he wants the American men to own that relay.

Phelps also surely would have noticed that Chad le Clos of South Africa won the 100-meter butterfly in 51.08 seconds, the 200 fly in 1:54.32. When he has put in the work, Phelps swims faster than those times.

Le Clos isn’t swimming in Arizona — though there are, in total, 27 Olympic medalists from seven countries who between them have 97 medals, 51 gold, registered to swim in Mesa.

Lochte — and it must be acknowledged he is an extraordinary talent, with 11 Olympic medals, five gold — is on the start lists.

Giving credit where it is due, Lochte did his thing in the 400 IM in London. Phelps might well be done— as the Mesa Grand Prix proves, never say never — with that event. That said, both guys have traditionally duked it out in the 200 IM and if this weekend and for the foreseeable future Phelps swims even shorter events, so be it. He said Wednesday he would be scratching the 100 free in Mesa but would be swimming the 100 fly -- hardly a surprise.

But Phelps knows one other thing, too, and Lochte knows it as well, looking ahead — way ahead — to Rio:

At the Olympic Games, the 200 IM traditionally comes just minutes, literally minutes, after the 200 backstroke. Lochte swims the 200 back. Phelps does not. The 200 back is a killer. It leaves the legs feeling like wood. It is a testament to Lochte’s will that he even tries the double.

Always, always, always remember this about Michael Phelps:

He loves to race. He loves to win. He hates to lose.


Not just one super swimmer

BARCELONA -- No, Michael Phelps did not swim even one stroke at the 2013 world championships. Yes, his presence hung over the meet -- it being a year to the day that he touched the wall for the last time in the winning medley relay in London, as was helpfully noted in a Facebook post by the U.S. Olympic Team. Is he coming back? Who knows? Whatever Phelps ultimately opts to do, keep at his golf game or again take the plunge, these championships, which wrapped up Sunday in memorable fashion, with the bang of the medley relays, will be long remembered because -- if this is indeed the post-Phelps era -- swimming now boasts not just one super-amazing swimmer.

It has a bunch of them.

Swimming - 15th FINA World Championships: Day Sixteen

Phelps has always said he wanted, first and foremost, to grow the sport. Evidence came shining through across eight days at the Palau Sant Jordi.

American Missy Franklin, 18, won six gold medals. She joined Phelps, Mark Spitz and East German Kristin Otto as the only swimmers to win as many as six at the worlds or the Olympics. Otto won six at the 1988 Seoul Games.

Last year in London, Franklin won four golds and a bronze. She is -- at the risk of understatement -- an extraordinary talent.

At a late-night news conference, she was asked: "Missy, after all you have achieved here in Barcelona, do you start feeling like the female Michael Phelps?"

She smiled. "No," she said. "I just feel like Missy. I think that's all I ever want to be, is just Missy.

"I don't ever want to want to take after someone else, because in swimming everyone leaves their own unique mark. No one will ever do what Michael did, or how Michael did it. It has been incredible watching him. But I hope to kind of have my own unique traits that make me known for just being me in the swimming world instead of anyone else."

Franklin's immediate reaction after her final medal, a big win Sunday night by the U.S. women in the medley: she is taking a break from swimming until she shows up in a couple weeks at Berkeley for her freshman year.

The U.S. team dominated the swim medal count, with 29 overall in the pool, 14 gold. Including open water, the U.S. total: 31. Even so, these worlds underscored swimming's phenomenal worldwide growth, and the emergence of stars from all over.

For some context:

At the height of the craziness that was the plastic-suit craze, the 2009 world championships in Rome, swimmers set 43 world records. There was talk then that those marks might last 10 or 20 years.

Here, swimmers set six world records -- three in one day, Saturday.

All six records, intriguingly, were set in women's races.

Lithuania's Ruta Meilutyte, just 16, set two world records herself, in the 50 and 100 breaststroke. Her mark in the 50, in Saturday's semifinal no less, came mere hours after Russia's Yulia Efimova had in the preliminaries shaved two-hundredths of a second off the 29.8 record that American Jessica Hardy had set in 2009; Meilutyte lowered the new mark, 29.78, by a whopping three-tenths of a second, to 29.48.

Then, in Sunday's final, as if to emphasize just how brutal the competition has become, Efimova won the race, touching in 29.52. Meilutyte came in second, in 29.59. Hardy finished third, in 29.8 -- which, until just Saturday, had been world-record time.

"For her to swim so fast -- this is an amazing time," Efimova said. "But today I win. And this is great."

In Sunday's night's men's 1500, China's Sun Yang prevailed, in 14:41.15. That meant he won all three distance races, the 1500, 800 and 400 -- pulling off the distance triple that Australian legend Grant Hackett did at the world championships in Montreal in 2005.

He was named the male swimmer of the meet.

The female swimmer of the meet?

American Katie Ledecky, also 16. She also set two world records -- in the 800 and the 1500, the mark in the 1500 going down by six seconds. She also won all three distance races -- again, the 400, 800 and 1500. Moreover, she swam a leg on the winning 4x200 relay.

Ledecky said she had hoped for three wins and one world record -- in any of the three races, she said.

Though "it means a lot to me to get this award," Ledecky said, Franklin "deserves it probably more than I do" and "we are all so proud of her."

This must be understood about Katie Ledecky:

Out of the pool, she is as pleasant, charming and delightful as any model teen-ager -- who plans now to head home and apply for her driver's permit -- can be.

When she steps onto the blocks, however, she acquires -- this is meant as the highest of compliments -- a cold-blooded instinct to win.

She explained on Saturday where it comes from: "I've always had it, from the time I started swimming. When you love it, you want to do well." Comparatively, it's not a big deal to her to swim against the world's best: "When you get to a [big] meet, it's nothing new. You just compete against the girls next to you. That is what swimming is all about."

At a news conference Sunday, Ledecky was asked why it is that the world records here fell only to women.

She said, "Michael Phelps just retired. He left a really great legacy. I think a lot of great people have been inspired by him. Not just the male swimmers but definitely female swimmers as well. I think the world of swimming is really fast right now. I think the women are stepping up. The men are trying to chase some of Michael's records, which are really tough. I don't know -- it's just a handful of female swimmers that are starting to do this."

South Africa's Chad le Clos won the men's 100 and 200 butterflys, coming from behind in the 100 -- he was fifth at the turn -- just the way Phelps used to.

Cesar Cielo of Brazil won the men's 50 free in 21.32 but the race produced a new star, silver medalist Vlad Morozov, who touched in 21.47. Morozov, who moved to Southern California from Siberia when he was 14 and swam for USC in college, tore up the 2013 NCAA meet, breaking the 100-yard sprint record set by -- who else -- Cielo.

The U.S. medal count in the pool, incidentally, would have been an even 30 -- and the gold total 15 -- but for an unusual disqualification Sunday night in the men's medley.

On the first exchange, with Matt Grevers finishing the backstroke leg and Kevin Cordes jumping off to do the breaststroke, the electronic timer caught Cordes jumping precisely one-hundredth of a second too soon. The U.S. team finished the race in first place, with Ryan Lochte swimming the fly and Nathan Adrian swimming the anchor freestyle, and by more than a second -- but was promptly disqualified.

The incident was evocative of an exchange at the worlds in Melbourne in 2007, when Ian Crocker jumped off in the medley prelims exactly one-hundredth of a second too soon as well. That kept Phelps from winning eight gold medals there.

Grevers said the mix-up might have been as much on him as on Cordes, a promising breaststroker expected to be one of the world's best by the 2016 Rio Games. Adrian said, "It falls on all of our shoulders. It's up to all of us to help bring it back. I have said this before. If us four ever step up again, we are never going to have a disqualification. That's for sure."

Bob Bowman, Phelps' longtime mentor who is the head U.S. men's coach here, similarly called the episode Sunday a "great learning experience."

He urged perspective: "DQ'ing a relay in the first world championships of the quad is one thing. Doing it in the Olympics … would be 10 times worse, right?" The trick going forward: to "re-think how they're gong to react to things in this environment and just do better."

Earlier in the week, Phelps had been in the stands texting Bowman when the U.S. was racing.

Asked if Phelps had sent a text or two with some thoughts on the medley, Bowman said, "Not yet."

Then again, that was just moments after.


The team's the thing


BARCELONA -- The world knows Michael Phelps. It knows Ryan Lochte, who won his third straight men's world championships 200-meter individual medley here title here Thursday night at the Palau Sant Jordi. It knows teen sensations Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky. They each won more gold medals Thursday, too, swimming legs of the 4x200 freestyle relay.

No, Phelps isn't swimming here. Even so, this deep U.S. team is still -- with five days down, three days to go -- dominating the medals count at yet another world championships, and the story of how Jimmy Feigen won silver Thursday in the men's 100 free offers revealing insight into the American way.

Swimming - 15th FINA World Championships: Day Thirteen

The U.S. swim team has 18 medals in the pool, 20 overall. Swimming is by definition an individual sport. But at big meets, it is also -- and the Americans understand this better than anyone in the world -- a team event.

It sounds simple. But it's not.

It's not just that the Americans have considerable talent. Of course they do. But it runs far deeper than that.

It's about creating, and sustaining, a team culture that promotes and inspires best performance.

As Cate Campbell, the outstanding Australian swimmer put it in a news conference here before the meet got underway, "When you go away, the swim team becomes your family. Healthy family -- healthy swimming. I think that has been really important."

Consider the way the Americans talked about each other after Thursday's racing:

Ledecky swam her first-ever leg on a U.S. relay, leading off that 4x200 swim. When she touched, the Americans were in first. She said the experience was "awesome," adding, "It meant a lot to get up and race with three girls behind me," calling it "definitely the most fun I have ever had in a race."

Karlee Bispo, who swam third, after Shannon Vreeland, earned her leg -- her first-ever start in an international final -- after a solid preliminary swim.

Bispo said, "To be with three Olympians, and amazing people, and to be able to represent my country, and look back and hear the 'U-S-A' chant and wear our flag on our suit and cap -- to win the gold medal is something I will never forget. I was trying to hide back the tears hearing the national anthem."

Franklin, winner of the 200 free Wednesday, swam another outstanding 200 -- 1:54.27 -- to ensure the victory.

She said, "Being a part of a team is the most important part of swimming for me, which is different, because a lot of people think of it as an individual sport. But when you get out there and you have three people who are not only your teammates but your friends -- that you know are going to support you no matter what -- you just have this whole new energy about you.

"And you want to go out there and race harder than you have ever raced before."


"I think one of the reasons why Team USA is so dominant is because we're what I feel like is -- we're like the one team that comes together. It's not separate. It's not a men's team. It's not a women's team. We help each other out. The guys help the girls out. The girls help the guys out. I think that's why we're so dominant -- we push each other. That's what makes a team."

In a different team culture, it might have been easy for Feigen's performance Sunday night in the men's 4x100 relay to make for a longstanding disaster.

Instead, it now looks like the kind of thing that obviously not just kickstarted him here but might well galvanize him to and through both the world championships in Kazan, Russia, in 2015 and the Rio Summer Games in 2016.

Which, by the way, is just the way the U.S. coaches planned it all along.

It's called trust and faith in him, and each other. That's what families do.

The relay rewind: handed the lead, Feigen went a too-slow 48.23. The French won.

What happened next?

A little back story:

Feigen went to college at Texas, where he won the 50- and 100-yard free at the 2012 NCAAs under the direction of coaches Eddie Reese and Kris Kubik. At the Summer University Games in China in 2011, he won the 100-meter free. Last year in London, he swam in the prelims of the 4x100 free relay that would ultimately win a silver medal.

Feigen qualified for these 2013 worlds by finishing second at the U.S. nationals in the 100 free. In him, the U.S. coaches, led by men's head coach Bob Bowman, see enormous upside.

That's why they dropped him into the anchor slot Sunday night in the 4x100 relay. It was his first major-league performance.

He would say late Thursday, "I'm still kind of a rookie to the whole world-circuit thing. I got a little bit of rookie nerves when it came to that relay. I kind of felt like I let everybody down. So I felt like it was my duty at this point to step up and show I do belong, I do belong with these swimmers."

Feigen is now 23.

After the relay, one of the people he sought out is Jack Roach, the U.S. junior national team coach, who is here with the American staff. Feigen and Roach have a history. It goes back to when Feigen was 9, at the University of Texas swim camps, and Roach was a coach there.

For that matter, virtually every swimmer who has come up in the American program has a connection not just to -- but with -- Roach. Here's one of the main reasons why: "I never," he said of his current role, "consider myself more than a consultant."

In this context, that means this: Roach is keenly aware that when this meet ends, Feigen is heading back home. Yes, there's a mission now. But Feigen has relationships with his coaches back home, too. What do families do? They look after each other, even across the oceans.

Feigen initially brought up this concern to Roach: if I swim faster in the 100, will people think I didn't try in the relay?

"We got off that relatively quick," Roach said, adding it was important to recognize that of course American swimmers "do feel a relay position is an honor and they never want to drop the ball in that situation."

Then the talking got down to real strategy -- how to best prepare for the 100 itself. "The second thing we discussed," Roach said, "was how would Eddie and Kris help you strategize the race."

Roach added, "When I'm dealing with someone else's athlete, I think it's very important that I let them know that they know themselves better than I know them. I like to provide them with questions they can ask themselves."

There was some technical talk. But, really, as Roach said, at this level, the preparation is "all mental."

"Everyone," Roach said, "strives to be a champion. When you're a champion, you're worthy. Sometimes you're worthy and you aren't a champion. What do you learn from every experience to become a little more worthy so you can move into that championship state? So much of it is accountability to the athletes who are in front of you."

2013-08-01 20.51.20

Feigen's best 100 time before this meet in Barcelona: 48.24.

In Wednesday's semifinals, he went 48.07.

Then, in Thursday's final, 47.82.

Australia's James Magnussen -- out-touched by American Nathan Adrian by one-hundredth of a second last summer for the gold medal in London -- won the race, in 47.71.

Adrian took third, in 47.84.

The last time the U.S. men had won a world championships medal of any color in the 100 free? 2001, Anthony Ervin, gold.

For Magnussen -- who became the third Australian to win an individual discipline twice at the worlds, after Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett -- the win was about team and family as well: "We felt a little isolated last year. I felt like I had everyone's support this year. I felt like I was representing a team I was proud to represent this year, and that made my job a little easier."

For Feigen, too: "I started out a little shaky with this whole world championships thing but I think it's coming together in the end."

Finally, here's the reason Jack Roach is on staff in Barcelona, and is so integral to the American swim team's winning culture:

"I don't really feel like I can take much credit here," he said, and he's not being self-deprecatingly humble. He means it. "It's about the athletes Jimmy is surrounded with and the coaching staff back home and the support he gets."

As Ryan Lochte says -- jeah.


15:36.53 to make a change

BARCELONA -- It is 29 years since Joan Benoit ran the marathon at the Los Angeles Summer Games. Women now compete at the Summer Games in wrestling and boxing. At the 2012 London Games, every national Olympic committee in the world -- finally -- sent female competitors. The U.S. team was more than 50 percent female.

And yet there remains a curious anachronism. In swimming, one of the most progressive of sports, men -- only men -- race the Olympic 1500 meters. The longest distance in the pool on the Olympic program for women is 800 meters, as it has been since 1968.

There are moments in sports when you know you are bearing witness to something special -- to a moment that may change the way things are because, simply, frankly, that change is the right thing to do. On Tuesday night at the Palau Sant Jordi, American Katie Ledecky, Denmark's Lotte Friis and New Zealand's Lauren Boyle put on a performance that was, unequivocally, the best women's distance swim race of all-time and ought to immediately spur the addition of the women's 1500 to the Olympic program.

Lotte Friis of Denmark, Katie Ledecky of the United States and Lauren Boyle of New Zealand with their 1500-meter medals // Getty Images

Like, right now. Without question or hesitation. There can be no doubt.

The women's 1500 is -- obviously -- on the world championships program. It has been since 2001. Friis, 25, won the event at the 2011 worlds in Shanghai. Ledecky, 16, won the Olympic 800 in London. Boyle, 25, is a Cal-Berkeley grad who finished fourth in London in both the 400 and 800.

Friis swam Tuesday in Lane 4, Ledecky in 5.

Boyle raced two lanes over, in Lane 7.

Before the race, many here suspected the world record -- set by American Kate Ziegler in Mission Viejo, California, on June 6, 2007 -- was going down.

As Jessica Hardy, who would later in the evening win a bronze medal in the women's 100-meter breaststroke, would say, swimmers can tell when a pool "feels" fast, and she said, "This pool definitely 'feels' fast."

Ledecky, in winning the 400 on Sunday in 3:59.82, became the first female in history to go under four minutes in a textile suit. Boyle took third in that race, in 4:03.89.

That Ledecky didn't break the 400 world record is something of a footnote. Italy's Federica Pellegrini holds the record, 3:59.15, but set that mark at the world championships in Rome in 2009, at the height of the plastic-suit era. To go under four minutes was a signal something truly remarkable was at hand.

That's because the 400 is arguably Ledecky's third-best event -- there being the 800 and the 1500 yet to come here in Barcelona.

With apologies to Brooke Bennett, not since Janet Evans -- and this goes back to the late 1980s and early 1990s -- has women's distance swimming seen anyone quite like Katie Ledecky.

Evans -- who was also a teen-age phenomenon -- said Tuesday by telephone it's obvious Ledecky, who projects quiet humility and decency, has extraordinary confidence. Evans said she had that same confidence at that age as well.

"As an athlete, you know every time and race it's not a question of if you're going to win a medal, it's how much you're going to win a medal by," Evans said. "She has three years to get ready for Rio," meaning the 2016 Summer Games. "It's the greatest sweet spot there is."

Evans added a moment later, "The hard part about this .. is that she now has a target on her back. I mean that in the most positive way. Great champions deal with that pressure. And she is a great champion. How much faster is she going to get? I mean, it is awesome."

Which is the word for the race that went down. Just -- awesome.

Ledecky and Friis raced, as the authoritative website would later recite, through swim history:

-- At 100 meters, Ledecky was at 58.75, Friis at 59.15. This was the 100-meter world-record pace in 1971 of Australian Shane Gould.

-- At 200 meters, Ledecky was 66-hundredths of a second ahead. Now they were racing at the 200-meter pace set by East German Kornelia Ender in the mid-1970s.

From 300 to 1200 meters, Ledecky let Friis set the pace. Always, though, Ledecky stayed close.

-- At 400 meters, Friis held a 63-hundredths lead. She turned in 4:05.26. This was at Evans' 400-meter pace in 1987.

-- At 800 meters, Friis was up by just 17-hundredths. She flipped in 8:17.16. Both were now inside British racer Rebecca Adlington's world title pace in 2011.

For most of the race, meanwhile, both Friis and Ledecky cruised along about five seconds inside Ziegler's split times. Then, at 1300 meters, Ledecky brought the hammer. She turned first for the first time since 250.

By 1450, Ledecky had -- this is almost outrageous -- built a 1.07-second lead.

She then delivered -- even more outrageous -- a final lap of 29.47 seconds.

Her winning time: 15:36.53.

The executive summary: Ledecky crushed the world-record -- which had stood for more than six years, and withstood the insanity of the plastic suits -- by six seconds.

Also, she beat her prior personal best, 15:47.15, by nearly 11 seconds.

Friis also beat Ziegler's world-record, and by nearly four seconds. She touched in 15:38.88.

"It's just really nice to be part of the big races, really exciting, nail-biting races," Friis would say afterward.

Boyle, meanwhile, finished in 15:44.71. That would have been the best swim of 2012, and by 21 seconds. Until Tuesday, it would have been the best swim of 2013, by two-plus seconds. As it is, it set an area record -- an "Oceania championship" mark.

"I was quite surprised I could see [only] Katie's and Lotte's feet the last 500 meters," Boyle said, smiling, adding, "It's really an honor to race those girls."

Bob Bowman, Michael Phelps' longtime mentor, said afterward that Ledecky's 1500 was "as good as any swim Michael ever did -- ever."

Missy Franklin, who won the 100 backstroke Tuesday in 58.42 seconds, her second gold medal here, watched the 1500 from the ready room while readying for another race, the 200 free semifinals, and said, "I knew that world record was definitely going down tonight. But six seconds was absolutely incredible," adding, "All of us were totally in awe of the six seconds."

Ledecky herself, asked at a news conference by the moderator if she was prepared to be the "queen or prince of these championships," quickly demurred, as she typically does.

She said, "I am just really honored to be here and to be a part of the great swimming that is going on here."

Excellence, friendship, respect -- those are the Olympic values, and they were on display in every regard Tuesday, punctuated by a spectacular world record. Put the women's 1500 on the Olympic program.