CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Michael Phelps is back to his winning ways.
The 18-time Olympic champion touched the wall first in the men’s 100-meter butterfly Friday night at the Charlotte Grand Prix for his first victory since coming out of retirement.
“It’s been a while,” said Phelps, who bid farewell to the competitive arena in London in 2012 after winning his 22nd medal, the most won by any Olympian in history.
Now he’s starting a new streak.
“It’s nice seeing No. 1, the first place next to your name,” Phelps said, “so to be on that side of it, that’s my first one since I came back. Hopefully we can get a string of those in a row.”
This was the second meet in his comeback. At the Mesa Grand Prix in Arizona last month, Phelps placed second behind Ryan Lochte in the 100 fly, 51.93 seconds to 52.13.
Phelps again clocked 52.13 seconds in Charlotte to defeat Pavel Sankovich, an Olympian from Belarus, who turned in a time of 52.72.
“Obviously, I always want to improve every time I get in the water,” said Phelps, who will turn 29 in June, “so I would have liked to have been a little faster than I did in Mesa. But being able to go the exact same time with missing a couple of days (of training) and having a three-week beard on my face, it’s respectable, I’ll say that. My body’s a little sore right now.”
Lochte, who trains in the Charlotte area, watched the race from the VIP area and was asked if he could have beaten Phelps.
“Nah, I got a brace on my leg,” said Lochte, who is nursing a lingering knee injury.
The sold-out crowd of 1,003 fans at the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center had hoped to see another showdown between the two Olympic titans.
Angel Trimble, SwimMAC Carolina Director of Communications and Marketing, said there was a “tremendous spike” in ticket sales following the announcement that Phelps would compete.
“It definitely brings in additional outside interest,” she said. “With Ryan (training) here, people wanted to see that matchup.”
Even Phelps would have liked to have Lochte in a neighboring lane.
“It’s always good to have someone like that race,” said Phelps who wore a Rio 2016 swim cap in practice in Charlotte. “As much as I say I don’t pay attention to everybody else, he and I hate to lose to one another, so it’s very good to be able to get in and race him because we do tend to push each other to the max.”
With Lochte sidelined, the Phelps factor was enough to bring the crowd to its feet.
Perhaps as an indication of his anxiousness to race, Phelps led the 100 fly swimmers to the blocks in the final even though he was in Lane 5 and the second-fastest qualifier behind Sankovich.
Phelps did his trademark arm slap on the blocks, then dove in. He reached the turn at 50 meters first, then maintained a comfortable margin to the finish.
He said he needs to work on judging the walls better, as well as the timing on his hips, but felt better than he did in Mesa.
Phelps was also pleased with his consistency and with the first serious double in a morning session of his comeback.
He qualified for the A final in the 200 freestyle during the morning preliminaries with the eighth-fastest time, but decided to forego the event to focus on the 100 fly.
Conor Dwyer, who won the 200 free final, said he was impressed with Phelps’ time of 1 minute, 51.69 seconds.
“I don’t think he pushed it all the way and he hasn’t felt the 200 pain, which we all know can be pretty painful,” said Dwyer, who trains with Phelps, “but after one month of altitude, I’m sure he’ll rip a 200 fly or 200 free pretty good, and I look forward to seeing that.”
Phelps will leave for Colorado in about two weeks to spend a month training at altitude with coach Bob Bowman. Then he will compete in the final Grand Prix of the season at Santa Clara, California, June 19-22.
“We’ll have a better idea of really what my body can handle swimming multiple events and swimming every day,” said Phelps, who declared that he is finished with the 200 fly.
“Being able to come for one day here, we wanted to try to see if we could get two races in to see how my body reacts to it,” he added, “and this morning I think we had a good idea of what we need to fix.”
His attitude, however, is just where it needs to be. Phelps said that for Bowman “it’s not pulling teeth and forcing me to do something.”
“I come in every day, I am joking. I am laughing, I am smiling,” Phelps said. “I guess I still do have a bratty side to me, where I can be a little twerp here and there, but everyone has those sides.
“I’m doing it to have fun and I’m doing it because I love it. Having 18 months really out of competition and swimming in Mesa, I felt like a kid swimming in a summer league meet. That was something that I hadn’t had in a while.”
During the morning prelims in Charlotte, kids lined up along the rope to high-five Phelps on the pool deck and pose for selfies. “I think I took a couple of selfies this morning that kids are pretty excited about,” Phelps said. “Even moms were getting excited about taking selfies.”
Bowman said he got on board with Phelps’ comeback “because he’s doing it the right way and for the right reasons.
“If he loves to swim and he wants to do it, I always said Mozart should make music as long as he wants to make music,” Bowman said. “He shouldn’t have to retire just because he’s 30 or some age. But by the same token, it should be good music.”
Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 14 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.