Will He Be Back?

by Casey Barrett

Considering the comeback chances of Michael Phelps… 

I think he’ll be back. So does Rowdy Gaines. So do many others… Is this a selfish instinct? A refusal to admit that swimming’s meal ticket has really left the table? Probably. It’s hard to imagine an Olympics without Phelps in the pool. It hasn’t happened this century.

No one in swimming wants to consider this. There’s an undercurrent of panic swirling around Phelps’s departure. The guy achieved his ultimate goal: he changed the sport. In remarkable ways that couldn’t be conceived a generation ago, swimming is appreciated by a much wider world. And it is practiced in ways that were inconceivable back when Phelps burst on the scene in 2000.

Just take a look at the guy who beat Phelps in the 200 fly, Chad Le Clos. The South African is a direct descendent of the Phelps gene pool. He swam the same events as Phelps in London because he was imitating his hero. Ryan Lochte would never have attempted that brutal program if Phelps hadn’t done it first. Same goes for Missy Franklin and her seven-event London campaign.

NBC airs swimming beyond the Olympics now, at the World Championships, the Pan Pacs, the U.S. Nationals, the Dual in the Pool, because of one guy. Like it or not, that’s why they’re there. Question is, will they stay now that he’s gone? Fortunately, they probably will, thanks to the folks he inspired – with Lochte and Franklin at the top of that list.

The sport will be just fine. Phelps has left it in great hands. However, make no mistake, he has not left for good.

Here’s why:

In the immediate aftermath of Phelps’s last race, Michael Jordan was the first person he thought of. Teared up, he couldn’t quite get Jordan’s name out, but he alluded to His Airness in his on deck interview with NBC’s Andrea Kremer. A little while later Phelps expanded on that sentiment in his studio interview with Bob Costas. Seems Michael always wanted to Be Like Mike. And he was. They’re both the greatest ever. (Note: They have more in common than that. Take a look at this piece posted last January: The Two Mikes)

As we know, the first Mike came back. He couldn’t stay away because he couldn’t get enough. Nothing else compared. The first thing Phelps mentioned when asked what he was going to do with his time was golf. He spoke of the game in that way of superstars who are baffled on the links, who are determined to prove that it can’t be that hard. Hell, have you seen how out of shape some of those guys on the Tour are? Yeah, Jordan thought the same thing. Thought the same thing about cards too. These competitive vices fill the hole, sure. But when you’re only mediocre at the games, it’s hard to get the same buzz. No matter how much you wager.

Phelps will realize this. It will take about two years. About that time, the 2014 Winter Olympics will be getting started. The Olympic theme will suddenly be ubiquitous again; Phelps will be bombarded with a million media requests. He’ll probably head over to Sochi, Russia to watch some of the action in person. (His agent, Peter Carlisle, got his start in winter sports and Octagon represents a load of Team USA’s greatest Winter Olympians, guys Phelps is friendly with…) This will get the comeback juices flowing.

Back in early 2006, I got to know and work with Erik Vendt, while he was a few years into a first retirement of his own. He hung up the goggles after a second 400 IM silver in Athens and moved to New York. Joined us teaching at Imagine Swimming. At least until he heard that Olympic theme playing on NBC as the Torino Winter Games began in February, 2006. He was back in the water at Michigan by spring. His training partner, the guy who convinced him to come back? That would be Phelps.

Don’t underestimate that siren’s song. John Williams’s score, the one that NBC plays eight million times every day in and out of commercials, it does something to these guys. It’s like your coach’s whistle from the deck. When you hear it, you respond to it. It’s involuntary and as irresistible as your kid calling your name.

Over the years, Phelps has gone out of his way to state that he’s never wanted to be swimming at age 30. Never wanted to be one of those old guys out there… This is a funny little hang up of late 20s American men, global Olympic icons or not. There’s something about turning 30 that twists guys up, makes them think they’re supposed to be doing something else, something grown up and moved on by that point. When Phelps mentions that turning 30 line of demarcation, he’s expressing the same am-I-no-longer-young? fear that everyone else feels at his age.

But here’s the thing. That feeling vanishes about 30 seconds after you turn 30. You stop giving a shit about your age, about entering some new decade, and you get on with it. If Phelps can stay away through 2014 and the call from the Winter Games, he will be back in the water sometime in the late summer of 2015. He’ll be 30, he’ll be getting a little bored, and he’ll know that he still has it. He will.

In Rio, Phelps won’t swim a Phelpsian scorecard of seven or eight events. He’ll stick to the ones that come back fastest: the sprints. Here’s my prediction: Phelps will be back and he’ll swim the 100 fly and the 100 free at U.S. Trials. That’s it. He’ll be top two in the 100 fly, and be a threat to win again in Rio. In the 100 free, he’ll be top four at Trials and join another U.S. relay. A relay with unfinished business. A relay that he will badly want to steal back from France. He won’t worry about any revenge in the 200 fly; he’ll leave that to his protégé Le Clos. But he’s gonna want that relay back.

He’ll go to Rio with three races, two relays and one individual, where he’ll happen to have a chance to make more absurd history – win an event at four straight Games. Right now he’s the only guy to win three straight, but two women did that before him – Australia’s Dawn Fraser in the 100 free and Hungary’s Krisztina Egerszegi in the 200 back. Phelps isn’t real big on tying, in case you haven’t noticed. Just one more carrot for Coach Bob, one he’s surely already considered…

Of course, all this speculation is pure selfishness. Putting it out there because I want it to happen. It’s not like he needs one more never-been-done accomplishment to add to that unprecedented resumé.

Or maybe he does.