MESA, ARIZONA – Michael Phelps tied the fourth-fastest time in the world this year swimming the 100-meter butterfly in his first competition in nearly two years. His comeback has gotten off to a strong start albeit with a much different approach than he took in winning 22 medals over three Olympics.
After a 20-month retirement, Phelps resumed training last September with his longtime coach Bob Bowman at the North Baltimore Aquatic Center in his hometown. But he didn’t pick up the grueling regimen that had ruled his life since he was a teenager.
Phelps has slowly started back and now trains just once a day in the afternoon. No double or triple sessions or plowing through thousands of meters a day.
Call this comeback Phelps 2.0.
While his workload will go up eventually, for now Phelps is doing half the amount of training he did during the height of career, when he won a record eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
“I’m sort of experimenting with stuff that I didn’t have the guts to do before, like not swim as far,” Bowman said. “I’m very pleased with how he’s doing.”
This relaxed approach appears to suit both Phelps and Bowman just fine. Their decades-long partnership — rare in a sport where swimmers frequently change coaches — survived fiery clashes as Phelps grew up and rebelled against Bowman’s hard-nosed ways.
“Our last several years together, it really wasn’t much fun for everybody,” the coach said.
Without committing to specifics, Phelps seems intent on swimming fewer events and shorter races this time around. He turns 29 in June, and as the most decorated Olympian in history, his place in the record books is secure.
“I’m not putting any pressure on myself,” he said. “I’m just enjoying myself right now.”
At the Arena Grand Prix meet in Mesa, he competed in just two events — the 100 fly (he finished second to Ryan Lochte) and the 50 freestyle, where he instead used a butterfly stroke and finished 42nd.
Phelps’ time of 52.13 seconds in the 100 tied for fourth-quickest in the world this year. In his other event, he swam 50 meters of fly in 24.06, faster than his split time a day earlier in the 100 fly.
His biggest challenge last fall was to lose the 15 kg he had piled on since retiring after the 2012 Olympics. He’s gone from a high of 102 to 88 — about 3 kg more than he raced at in London.
“He’s not fat. He’s been pretty strong in the weight room,” Bowman said. “Where he’s lacking is aerobic fitness. He’s got a good start on it.”
Phelps figures to improve that aspect during upcoming high-altitude training in Colorado.
Bowman’s plan calls for Phelps to work his way up to recovering faster so he can handle multiple individual races a day and swim anywhere from one to three relays. But the coach said his star pupil will never go back to the grind he put in to win all those Olympic medals.
“He’s much happier doing the training,” Bowman said. “As long as he’s enjoying it like he is, it’s good for everybody. That’s what I am concerned about.”
Phelps is entered in the last two Grand Prix meets of the season, in North Carolina in May and California in June. Those are tuneups for the U.S. national championships in August, where teams will be chosen for the Pan Pacific Championships later that month and next year’s world meet.
“I know if I really want to compete at a high level, I have to be ready by this summer,” he said.
Whether all this leads to swimming at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Phelps remains mum.
“I always have goals and things that I want to achieve,” he said. “This has been an amazing journey that I’ve gone on so far, and I just hope it continues.”