CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – Michael Phelps lunged to the wall, popped his head out of the water, and turned immediately toward the scoreboard.
There was a “1” beside his name.
Felt pretty good.
For the first time since his supposed farewell at the 2012 London Olympics, Phelps was on top of the podium Friday night. He cruised to victory in the 100-meter butterfly at the Charlotte Grand Prix, while longtime rival Ryan Lochte watched from the VIP area, a brace on his injured left knee.
Phelps made it through a grueling double in the morning prelims, also swimming the 200 freestyle, then limited himself to one race in the evening. While he didn’t improve on the time from the first meet in his comeback, when he finished second to Lochte at Mesa, Arizona, last month, it was another big step toward competing at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
If nothing else, Phelps showed he still knows how to get to the wall first.
“It’s been a while,” he said. “It’s nice seeing the first place next to your name. It’s good to be on that side of it again. That’s my first one since I came back. Hopefully, we can get a string of those.”
Going out strong and remaining comfortably ahead on the return leg, Phelps cruised to victory in 52.13 seconds, about a half body-length ahead of runner-up Pavel Sankovich, a 2012 Olympian from Belarus.
Phelps matched his time exactly from Arizona, where he returned to competition for the first time since retiring after the London Olympics. But this time, he had the pool to himself. Lochte pushed a little too hard in Mesa, aggravated his surgically repaired knee, and was advised by his doctors to give it some rest.
The overflowing crowd at the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center would’ve preferred another Phelps-Lochte showdown, especially since Lochte now trains in Charlotte, but they seemed more than satisfied to get the most decorated athlete in Olympic history.
“I took a couple of selfies this morning that the kids were pretty excited about,” Phelps said. “Even the moms were getting excited about taking selfies.”
Lochte was disappointed to miss a chance to swim in front of his new home fans for the first time.
Asked if he could’ve beaten Phelps, Lochte smiled.
“No,” he said, holding out his left leg. “I’ve got a brace on my knee.”