One of the better individual rivalries in sports appears to be back for now.
Michael Phelps returned to the pool for the first time in two years at the Arena Grand Prix in Mesa, Arizona, on Thursday. While he led all competitors in the preliminary heats of the 100-meter butterfly, Ryan Lochte was able to edge out the legendary swimmer in the finals.
UPDATE: April 25, 2014 at 3:25 p.m. ET
Following his loss to Lochte on Thursday, Phelps returned to the pool on Friday for his second competition of the event.
An 18-time Olympic gold medalist in middle and longer distances, the decorated American tried his hand at sprinting in the 50-meter freestyle. He added a bit of a twist, too, electing to use the butterfly stroke.
It went just about exactly as you might have figured, with Phelps coming in seventh in his heat after a time of 24.06 seconds. NBC Olympics' Twitter feed provided the news:
Michael Phelps swims butterfly in 50m free prelims at Mesa Grand Prix, finishes 7th: http://t.co/RYUv8lQMO2— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) April 25, 2014
Fellow Olympic gold medalist Nathan Adrian won the heat, while Phelps dropped to 42nd overall in the competition, failing to qualify for the finals, as AZCentral.com's Jeff Metcalfe noted:
Michael Phelps, swimming butterfly, is 42nd of 89 finishers in 50 freestyle prelims at #ArenaGPMesa— jeffmetcalfe (@jeffmetcalfe) April 25, 2014
It's certainly not a great result, but again, it's not surprising, either. This was merely an exhibition event for the American, and the previously retired Phelps was simply looking to get back into rhythm with his fly stroke. All circumstances considered, it wasn't a bad showing in Mesa.
Phelps' next appearance in the pool is still unknown, but the next USA Swimming Grand Prix event will be held in Charlotte, N.C., in mid-May.
Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports points out that Lochte changed what would have been a great story:
Ryan Lochte says not yet to the Phelps comeback express. Nice race.— Pat Forde (@YahooForde) April 25, 2014
Sean Jensen of Thrive Sports provides a look at the times as Phelps finished in second place:
The good news is that both competitors appeared to be in good spirits after the race:
Both Lochte and Phelps have to be happy with those swims. They're having a good time in the post-race interview. #MesaGP— SwimSwam (@swimswamnews) April 25, 2014
Phelps continued his good mood after the event with this tweet:
Pumped to be racing again... Happy with the time tonight right where I wanted to be!!— Michael Phelps (@MichaelPhelps) April 25, 2014
This was certainly a disappointing finish for someone used to winning, but Lochte is no slouch after winning 11 Olympic medals in his career. As a result, Phelps should be proud of a fantastic result on his first day of competition since 2012.
Phelps started the day with a win in the 14th and final heat of the preliminaries. As Chris Dachille of WBAL noted, Phelps had the best time in the field:
Phelps wins his heat in the time of 52.84 in the 100m butterfly preliminary. He's the top qualifier in the event.— Chris Dachille (@WBALDash) April 24, 2014
This sets up an exciting final against another accomplished swimmer:
So Michael Phelps is a winner in his first race since the 2012 London Olympics. He and rival Ryan Lochte will be side-by-side in the final.— SwimSwam (@swimswamnews) April 24, 2014
Ryan Lochte and Phelps will battle along with the rest of the field in the eighth race of Thursday night's session.
The Maryland native decided to get back into racing after retiring following the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. He won four gold medals and two silvers there, raising his career total to 22 overall medals, making him the most decorated Olympian of all time.
While there are high expectations for this return, it is clear that Phelps is simply interested in enjoying himself. According to Jeff Metcalfe of USA Today, the swimmer explained:
I'm doing this for me. If I don't become as successful as you think I would or should be, that's your own opinion. I enjoy being in the pool and sport of swimming and having fun with what I'm doing.
Nobody is forcing me to do this or that. I want to be back in the water.
Phelps was originally supposed to take part in three competitions at the Arena Grand Prix but has narrowed it down to two, as Forde notes:
This takes away some of the mental and physical pressure that would come from competing in multiple events in the same day. Now he can work on building up his stamina and showcasing the pure speed that allowed him to win so many events over the past decade.
It remains to be seen if he can continue to get back into form to compete at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, and he has not even committed to the event. Still, this start certainly indicates that he is well on his way.
Based on what we have seen from Phelps since he burst onto the scene at the 2004 Games, there is little reason to doubt him.
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