MINNEAPOLIS – Michael Phelps is back at the University of Minnesota’s Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center this week, the same venue where he swam his first national championships in 1999.
At that event, Phelps finished dead last in his two events.
His career is coming full circle, as the now 18-time Olympic champion has returned to the same venue to begin what could potentially be the final season of his storied career when the 2015-16 Arena Pro Swim Series begins on Thursday.
“I’m thrilled to be going into this year and kind of giddy to see what happens at the end,” Phelps said.
“I’m hungrier than I was leading into 2012. I feel like I did in high school — that kind of excitement level. It just gives me a lot more hope that there’s a lot more I can do over the next year.”
Phelps has been a hot topic in the media this week after having his roller-coaster ride since the last Olympic Games featured as Sports Illustrated’s cover story.
“You guys all saw the article in SI,” Phelps said. “I was in the darkest place in my life last year, and I didn’t have much confidence when I stepped up to the block and I didn’t know what to expect. It’s scary going into this year, but now, scary in a good way.”
The most decorated Olympian in history has received an outpouring of support in response to the article and heading into the season, especially on social media.
“When I see athletes tell their stories and be more human, I think that there’s a better connection,” Phelps said. “I think it just shows that we are all human beings, and it’s OK to seek help if we need it. I hope that’s what people got out of that.”
This week marks Phelps’ first competition since he re-established himself as the world’s most dominant male swimmer at August’s national championships, where he won and captured world-best marks in the 100- and 200-meter butterfly and 200-meter individual medley races.
Nearly 50 USA Swimming national team members will compete in the season’s kick-off event, which runs through Saturday, including fellow Olympic champions Ryan Lochte, Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky.
Phelps, just like his biggest rival Lochte, is entered to swim in six events, the first step on his staircase to next June’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Omaha, Nebraska. He is slated to swim in the 100- and 200-meter freestyle, 100-meter backstroke, 100- and 200-meter butterfly and 200-meter individual medley.
The Baltimore native said he hasn’t been looking forward to racing this much for a very, very long time.
Phelps admitted he was just “going through the motions” leading up to the London 2012 Games, but now, he says he’s matured to the point where he actually wants to do it.
He wants to jump into the pool every day.
He wants to line up at the blocks every competition.
He wants to speak to the media.
He wants to be a champion.
And the new Phelps’ relationship with coach Bob Bowman is now better than ever.
“I actually want to come to practice now, so it’s a little easier for him,” Phelps said. “When seeing the difference between where I am now and this time last year, anything is possible. I do believe it. There’s still more in the tank. It’s just up to Bob and I to figure out how to get there.”
Not only is Phelps’ mind in a great place but so is his physical state. He’s maintaining a healthier diet than ever before and insists age will not be a factor this season.
“For me, it’s just a number,” he said. “I am 30, yeah. But who cares?”
Between now and the Olympic Trials, he’ll mostly be training outdoors in Arizona, where he is eagerly anticipating the chance to revive his pale skin after swimming for the last few weeks indoors at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
While a changed, level-headed Phelps knows it’s only November, and there’s still seven months to his fifth Olympic Trials and nine months to his fifth — and most likely last — Olympic Games, he’s already envisioning exactly how he wants the next year to go.
“I’m not going to have a ‘what-if’ in this sport,” Phelps said. “I’m going to walk out how I want to walk out.”
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.