Ryan Lochte (first place) and Michael Phelps (second place) pose together after finishing the Men's 100m Butterfly final during day one of the Arena Grand Prix at the Skyline Aquatic Center on April 24, 2014 in Mesa, Arizona.
ATHENS, Ga. – Even on a night his stroke “felt kind of bad,” Michael Phelps was good enough to nearly pull out a win.
Phelps was edged by French Olympian Yannick Agnel, his North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammate, in the 100-meter freestyle Sunday night at the Bulldog Grand Slam. Agnel, the gold medalist in the 200 free at the London 2012 Olympic Games, clocked in at 49.37 seconds to Phelps’ 49.42.
Phelps, swimming in his fourth meet after taking nearly a two-year retirement from competitive swimming, won the 100 butterfly and 100 backstroke on the first two nights of the meet. He said he felt relaxed and controlled in the morning preliminaries of the 100 free, but couldn’t carry that sensation into the evening race.
“Just as soon as I took my first stroke, it kind of felt blah,” said the 18-time Olympic gold medalist. “It’s all right. It happens from time to time. I know what to do to fix that.”
“Just keep swimming,” said his coach, Bob Bowman.
Phelps added, “Over time it’ll just get better.”
Time is also what Ryan Lochte needs as he continues to recover from a left knee injury. Lochte, a five-time Olympic gold medalist, swam five events in the meet, which was put together to give elite East Coast clubs some competition leading into the 2014 Phillips 66 National Championships in Irvine, California, Aug. 6-10.
On Sunday, Lochte won the 200 individual medley with a time of 1 minute, 58.65 seconds, the 10th fastest time in the world this year. It was his first win in an “A” final since reinjuring his knee in April at the Mesa Grand Prix. He was also fourth in the 100 freestyle in 49.64 seconds.
Lochte, who competes for SwimMAC in Charlotte, North Carolina, said other swimmers had cautioned him after the morning session.
“I guess they saw me kind of limping around,” he said. “A bunch of the swimmers from every club team, they were like, ‘You need to just take it easy tonight. Be safe.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know the meaning of that.’
“It feels good to just race, do the IM and still have no pain, so I’m looking forward to this summer.”
At nationals, swimmers will qualify for the Pan Pacific Championships in Australia later this year as well as the 2015 FINA World Championships in Russia. It is the beginning of a push toward the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games.
Phelps qualified for his fifth event, the 100 backstroke, although he has not yet divulged which events he will swim at nationals.
He said the tune-up meet on the University of Georgia campus was a way to “get as many races under my belt as I can before nationals.”
“I think as a whole it was fine,” he said. “We’d rather be better than fine.”
Phelps and Bowman both acknowledged that he has a long way to go before he’ll be as sharp as he was before he retired in the wake of the 2012 Games.
“I know if I were to be on the world championship team next year,” Phelps said, “that this would not be the kind of shape that I would expect to be in to be able to perform how I would like to perform. I know that there’s going to have to be a lot of improvements to swim the times that I want to swim at that level.”
Bowman said Phelps is swimming at 25 percent of the amount of training he was doing when he was at his peak.
“So these (races) were really pretty good,” Bowman said. “If he gets that up to 50 percent, it’ll be better. If he gets it up to 75 … how far do we want to go? How far do we need to go?”
Or, as Phelps added, “How fast do I really want to swim?”
He’ll have to swim fast to continue beating Lochte, whom he defeated in all three races they swam head-to-head.
On Friday, Phelps broke the 52-second barrier, clocking in at 51.67 seconds in the 100 butterfly, the third-fastest time in the world this year, with Lochte touching the wall at 53.08. However, Lochte wasn’t as fresh since he had also swum the 200 freestyle earlier that night. Phelps has won the gold medal in the 100 fly in the last three Olympic Games.
Phelps came back Saturday to win the 100 backstroke with a time of 53.88 seconds. Lochte was second in 54.40.
“It never gets old,” Lochte said of swimming against his rival. “I love it. He’s the toughest racer I’ve ever had to go up against. No matter what stroke, what event, he’ll race you to the end. It’s a challenge to race against him and I’m always up for a challenge.
“Win or lose, no matter what, at the end of the race, we’re still going to be friends. We’re not going to hold a grudge, so, I love it.”
Phelps said their rivalry is “sort of being back to where we were before I made my first retirement. We love getting in the water and racing each other. We hate to lose to one another. And we’re going to leave every ounce in the pool. That’s how it’s always been throughout our whole careers and that’s how it’s probably going to continue to be.”
Lochte was hurt late last year when a fan accidentally knocked him down while trying to embrace him. He had surgery and returned to competition before aggravating the injury three months ago.
“It feels amazing to get on those blocks and start racing again,” Lochte said. “I think that’s one of those things that I’ve missed the most this year, just getting on those blocks and feeling that excitement of just racing the people next to you. So I had a blast this weekend.”
Lochte’s coach, David Marsh, said he wishes they had five weeks instead of three to prepare for nationals.
“He needed this desperately to do some racing,” Marsh said. “We’ll do some things the next 10 days to try to solidify racing, get on the Pan Pacs (team), hopefully, and then make some improvements during the Pan Pac camp.
“He still has a hunger to swim lots of events.”
Lochte said he has not been in contact with the fan whose exuberance put him out of commission.
“I have no idea who it is,” he said. “I was hoping she would say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ like on Twitter or something, but that girl is nowhere to be found. I have a feeling she won’t say anything.”
What would he say to her if their paths crossed again?
Said Lochte: “I would say, ‘Next time, don’t run at me. Just ask me nicely. I won’t say no.’”
Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 14 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.