Michael Phelps knew that, as usual, every eye around the pool was on him.
Fans called encouragement. Competitors watched to see how he'd look after eight months away from racing and a suspension for drunk driving.
Confronted with the usual mania around his swimming existence, Phelps opted to keep it simple. He and longtime coach Bob Bowman agreed not to fret over the quality of his stroke or his time in Thursday morning preliminaries at the Mesa Arena Pro Swim Series.
“Just get in the water and race,” he said. “That’s what I did.”
As usual, Phelps raced well, posting the fastest qualifying time in the 100-meter butterfly and winning the evening final ahead (52.38 seconds) of longtime rival Ryan Lochte (53.11). His times weren’t up to his best from 2014, but he deemed the races “a good starting point.”
“I did what I had to do,” he said. “Afterward, I can say my stroke didn’t feel good, I needed one less stroke, I needed to kick more, the breakout on my turn was bad. I could pick apart the race a hundred different ways, but just getting in the water and racing was something I was looking forward to.”
The scene in Mesa wasn’t quite as festive as the year before, when a raucous crowd cheered Phelps’ first trip to the starting block after a 20-month retirement from competition. But the Rodgers Forge native was still the star of the show as he made his return from the six-month suspension he received from USA Swimming.
“Go, Michael!” fans shouted, as he mounted the block in the new turquoise XPRESSO racing suit he helped design with Aqua Sphere.
“I’m just glad he’s back,” Lochte said, expressing a sentiment seemingly shared by most swimmers and fans in Mesa. “He’s the hardest racer in the world. He’ll go toe to toe with you in any event, and I love that, because it’s a challenge whenever you go up on those blocks with him.”
Lochte is perhaps Phelps’ greatest career rival, and he was one of the first to predict Phelps would not stay retired after the 2012 Olympics. He said he was so confident Phelps would be in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Games he actually made a bet with his friendly competitor.
“I called him a liar,” Lochte said with a grin. “I said you’re going to come back, guaranteed. He’s like, ‘No I won’t.’ … When you do something for so long and you have that passion, when it goes away, you miss it.”
He wouldn’t say what the bet entailed.
Phelps had spoken Wednesday about how much happier he is and how much harder he’s training after a painful period of self-examination. He’d also made it official that he’s aiming for a fifth Olympics next year.
With all that as a backdrop, he said it was “weird” to plunge back into the water for a race. Phelps has said he’s in vastly better shape than he was when he began his comeback in Mesa last year, but his qualifying time of 52.92 seconds was a touch slower than his 52.84-second time in the 2014 morning preliminary. And his winning time in the final, 52.38 seconds, was behind his second-place time of 52.13 seconds from last year.
Bowman said Phelps’ times were decent given his recent workload. “Fifty-two [seconds] is fine here because he’s been training really hard. I told him today, ‘You’re actually tired from the training for the first time in probably a long time.’ So we’re trying to do it the right way, and hopefully, that will help us out.”
Phelps said he noticed the effects from training in the water. “I don’t feel as peppy as normal,” he said. “But I am working. I am fatigued every day after workout.”
That could be a byproduct of his more arduous training schedule, which he has compared to the work he did leading up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where he won a record eight gold medals. He seemed confident the work will pay off at big meets.
“When I think back to going into 2004, into 2008, those were the best physical shape and the healthiest that I’ve ever been, and those were the times that I swam the best,” he said. “So being able to get back to some of those training times, those training sets that I did back then, that’s only going to be a positive for me moving forward.”
Phelps entered five events in Mesa, with the 100-meter backstroke and 400-meter freestyle ahead on Friday and the 100-meter freestyle and 200-meter individual medley on Saturday.
“I said, 'Let’s swim the 400 and see how much I can do,' ” he said of a race he hasn't attempted since 2009. “How much can I hang? … I want to go into next year making sure I’ve challenged myself in every which way.”
Fans seemed as thrilled as ever to watch an all-time great, though some expressed mixed feelings about Phelps because of his drunk driving arrest, which led to a one-year suspended prison sentence and 18 months of supervised probation. His presence led to a near-sellout for Thursday night’s finals at the Skyline Aquatic Center and sellouts for Friday and Saturday nights.
D.J. and Rachel Ochoa made a six-hour drive from Albuquerque, N.M., with their sons, Beckham and Aidan, to see Phelps and the other top swimmers.
“Any time you can see the greatest of all time at what he does, it’s an awesome thing to see,” D.J. Ochoa said. “I think you can learn something from it.”
He and Rachel lived in Baltimore for three years when Phelps was on the rise, and they remembered bumping into the young star at Fortunato Brothers Pizza in Towson.
“One of the only times in my life I was star struck,” D.J. Ochoa said.
The Ochoas didn’t shy away from discussing Phelps’ arrest with their boys, ages 5 and 10. It was an unavoidable topic in a swimming-crazed household, with the news all over television and radio.
“It gave us an opportunity to talk about some challenging topics,” Rachel Ochoa said. “We told them there are going to be times when you face difficult decisions and you mess up. But you have to learn from it and accept the consequences.”
Ultimately, Phelps’ foibles did little to detract from their enthusiasm. “You kind of attach his name to anything, and he’s the draw,” D.J. Ochoa said.
Steve Yancy of Scottsdale, Ariz. stood nearby with his 12-year-old daughter, Ashley. They were on the deck to cheer Yancy’s older daughter, Ally, as she swam in the meet, but also to get a glimpse of the great Phelps. They attended the Mesa meet last year to watch him come out of retirement.
“I’m just as excited this time,” Steve Yancy said. “Just his aura, all the medals. It’s like going to see Jordan if you’re a basketball fan.”
Ashley said she was eager to watch Phelps but less enthusiastic than she’d been before his arrest. Missy Franklin is her favorite swimmer.
“As an adult, I kind of understand people have their issues, but for her, it changed things a little,” Steve Yancy said of Phelps’ struggles. “But you can say all you want. We’re here, right?”
Thursday also brought another round of speculation over Phelps possibly rejoining the U.S. team for the FINA World Championships in Russia in August. He was removed from the team as part of his punishment from USA Swimming for the drunk driving arrest.
Phelps seemed to put the saga to rest Wednesday, when he said he and Bowman were entirely focused on preparing for Phillips 66 Nationals, which run the same week as the world championships.
But FINA president Cornel Marculescu told the Associated Press his organization would happily find an extra spot for Phelps at world championships.
A USA Swimming official said nothing has change regarding Phelps’ status with the team. But Phelps offered an open-ended response when asked about Marculescu’s comments.
“I don’t even know,” he said. “Cornel and I have known each other for a long time, and this is news to me. I just heard it walking down here. I’m here to swim here right now, and that’s what I’m focused on. I really don’t know what to expect from the future. Bob and I’s plan has always been to prepare for nationals, because I wasn’t able to swim on the world championship team.”