MESA, Ariz. -- Just 10 days after Michael Phelps made his return to competitive swimming official, he finished two-tenths of a second away from picking up a victory.
In his only event of the day in front of a sellout crowd at the Arena Grand Prix at Mesa outside of Phoenix, Phelps finished second to rival and close friend, Ryan Lochte, in the 100-meter butterfly. Lochte, an 11-time Olympic medalist, clocked in at 51.93 seconds; Phelps was second in 52.13.
Phelps, the world’s most decorated Olympian with 22 medals, was all smiles afterwards despite the loss and said he was just happy to get his first finals race behind him. He will race in the 50 freestyle Friday.
Whether this race will be the beginning of an Olympic return remains to be seen. Phelps vowed after the London 2012 Olympic Games that he was finished with competitive swimming. Now it appears he might be preparing for a fifth trip to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
“I did what I wanted to do,” said Phelps, the three-time Olympic gold medalist in the 100 fly and the current world-record holder (49.82) in the event. “I said I wanted to be around 52.00, and I would be happy with it.”
The battle between Phelps and Lochte for the 100 fly came down to the wire. Phelps had a slow jump off the blocks and began to catch up during the first stretch of the race. A bad turn put him behind once again, and it was too much for Phelps to overcome.
“Besides probably the worst turn of my career, the race was fun,” Phelps, 28, said. “My stroke was a little off tonight. It was a little looser this morning.”
Phelps, who had not raced since the London Games in 2012, said he didn’t have any pre-race butterflies and felt comfortable headed into the race. He was just a little rusty.
His longtime personal coach, Bob Bowman, said Phelps made too many small mistakes, which was expected after such a long absence from competition.
“He hadn’t been in a race for two years until this morning (in preliminaries),” said Bowman, who coaches Phelps in Baltimore. “He was a little off from the start. By the time he got going, it was almost over.”
It was no secret the majority of fans gathered at the Skyline Aquatic Center to see Phelps. The capacity crowd of 12,000 sold out just hours after his return to swimming was announced, and all-session passes that sell for $40 were resold for over $250.
“It was a pretty cool feeling this morning to hear the crowd go crazy when I stepped up to the block, and again to see the same thing tonight,” Phelps said.
Phelps’ approach to the blocks before the finals race looked calm, cool and collected. He wore his signature headphones, and stayed focused during introductions despite the strong reaction from the fans.
The mood quickly changed after the race. He and Lochte were quick to exchange words, and it became clear their friendship hadn’t missed a beat since London.
“I’m glad he’s back,” Lochte said. “Me and him, we push each other all the time. What he’s done for the sport of swimming, and him leaving, it kind of broke my heart a little bit.”
Lochte said without Phelps at the meet, he knows he wouldn’t have had such a strong time.
“I love racing, I love being on the blocks against him, and I’m glad he’s back. He knows how to push you to make you better,” Lochte said. “Racing against him is so much fun, and a challenge. Now that he’s back, I’ve got a great big smile on.”
Bowman stressed after the race that he has no specific plans for Phelps in the future, and isn’t going to pressure him to make any quick decisions.
“As long as he’s enjoying it like I think he is, it’s good for everybody,” Bowman said. “I think it’s no secret our last several years together, it wasn’t much fun for anybody.”
Both Phelps and Bowman made clear that his return is on his own terms, and Phelps gave no indication on where his career would take him after this event, although there is plenty of speculation it will lead to another Olympic appearance in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Phelps made his Olympic debut in 2000 when he was 15.
“I’m doing it because I’m having fun. I’m not putting pressure on myself to say I’m doing this, or say I’m doing that in the future,” Phelps said. “I’m just enjoying myself right now during this process. Today was a fun day.”