IRVINE, Calif. -- Michael Phelps began the most important meet of his comeback Wednesday with a stroke he admitted was shaky in a race he has rarely attempted against the best competition.
That set-up led to an uncustomary disappointing result, with Phelps finishing seventh in the 100-meter freestyle final at the Phillips 66 National Championships. He finished behind winner Nathan Adrian, longtime rival Ryan Lochte and North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammate Conor Dwyer.
Phelps' time of 49.17 seconds in the evening final was actually worse than his 48.77 seconds from morning preliminaries.
After a solid start in the final, Phelps said he missed touching the wall at the 50-meter turn and never recovered from the rare technical mistake.
"I'm really interested to see the replay, because going into the wall, I thought I had set myself up for a good one," he said. "It's kind of frustrating. I felt really good after the morning swim."
The record-setting Olympic gold medalist is swimming in his fifth meet since returning to competition after a 20-month retirement. But Nationals represent his first serious test, with Phelps swimming four events in five days against the best swimmers in the country.
Gone is the festive atmosphere that accompanied Phelps' first meet back at the Mesa Grand Prix in April. He received a nice ovation when he took the blocks for the first time Wednesday but nothing out of scale with the cheers for other top swimmers. Gone too is Phelps' just-happy-to-be-here persona. Though cheerful enough to take a few grinning pokes at his own performance, he dissected his races with the focus of a person fully re-immersed in the detail-obsessed world of swimming.
The day offered a glimpse of the new Phelps, who's eschewing the wildly ambitious programs of his youth and focusing instead on speed over shorter distances.
He faced a harsh reality in morning qualifying for the 100-meter freestyle—he's simply not as fast off the blocks as his chief competitors. Phelps nearly chased down top qualifier Nathan Adrian over the last 50 meters, but his sluggish start doomed him to finish behind Adrian and fellow sprint specialist Anthony Ervin.
Phelps derided his opening 50 meters as "pretty terrible."
"Nathan and Anthony, they're going to be out so fast," he said. "I'll be honest, I probably don't really have that speed, as much as I would want it."
But viewed another way, Phelps' morning swim was awfully good. Coming off a long stretch away from the pool and competing in an event that's never been his best, he still came close to some of the best sprinters in the world.
"I just think it speaks for itself that Michael is by far the best swimmer in history," said North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammate Chase Kalisz. "He proves it every single time he jumps in the water. No matter what event it is, he's going to bring his A game."
Though he swam on three Olympic-medal-winning 4x100-meter relay teams, Phelps has never swum the 100-meter freestyle as an individual event in the Olympics. His career-best time of 47.51 seconds came in a relay leg at the 2008 Olympics.
The event tends to be dominated by massive physical specimens such as the 6-foot-6 Adrian.
Phelps joked Wednesday morning that he'd asked Adrian if he could hitch a ride on the bigger swimmer's wake. "He said no," Phelps added.
Phelps was notably displeased with his last 100-meter freestyle race at the Bulldog Slam in Georgia, where he said he tensed up in a way he never had during his prime.
His freestyle stroke has been spotty since he came back.
"His freestyle has been off and on, because we always did everything for a 200 before," said longtime coach Bob Bowman. "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."
Phelps' performance Wednesday wasn't good enough to secure him spots on the 4x100-meter relay teams at Pan Pacific Championships later this month in Australia or at World Championships next summer in Russia.
There seemed some irony in the fact Phelps swam a relatively unfamiliar event on the same day he watched three North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammates—Kalisz, Thomas Glenn and Tom Luchsinger—compete in a race he long dominated, the 200-meter butterfly. Kalisz, a Bel Air native, finished third in Wednesday evening's final and Luchsinger seventh.
Phelps has two Olympic gold medals and one silver in the 200 butterfly, and no one has come close to his world record time in recent years.
Some analysts believe he will eventually resume the 200 butterfly, but Phelps has maintained the longer race is not in his plans.
"I'm not anywhere close to being able to swim that race at the level I would want to swim it at," he said. "It is nice not being in that race."
Phelps will take Thursday off and return Friday for what has become the marquee event of his comeback—the 100-meter butterfly.