Michael Phelps talks about his swim in the final of the 200 free at Austin as well as the colors of a certain university near to his heart in the gear he designed as part of his new line.
By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
The tension is gone.
Michael Phelps’ emotional state equilibrium is balanced by thoughtful perspective and context rather than anger.
He doesn’t race in and out of rooms anymore.
Michael Phelps has become great in another area -- expressing himself and giving some of the most heartfelt, insightful answers in all of sport, not just swimming.
So it was with a weight on his shoulders that he opened his time at the Arena Pro Swim Series at Austin about how difficult it was coming to Austin last year at this time knowing he would not be competing.
“I can say I am a lot happier being here and being able to swim,” Phelps said. “Last year I came here I was swimming in the diving well and swimming in the competition pool in between sessions. And standing and watching swimming when I want to be in isn’t fun.”
It was Phelps himself who brought up last year’s suspension, and how it embarrassed him to show up to a meet where he wasn’t competing.
“This is a town where I usually enjoy coming to swim, and usually enjoy coming to compete,” Phelps said. “This is where I broke my first world record. I remember the race like it was yesterday. This town has always been very special for me and my career. For me to be able to come back here one more time and swim here, I have a lot of excitement...just a chance to race in this pool again, because it’s probably the last time I’ll ever swim in this pool.”
Phelps had just come in for the Thursday, pre-meet press conference after a light warmup. You could see the genuine emotion in his face and feel it in his voice as he described how big last year’s time off impacted him here.
“When I was warming up I had mixed emotions,” Phelps said. “I remember standing on the side of the pool deck watching the 200 free last year. I was standing with (National Junior Team Director) Jack Roach and (National Team Director) Frank (Busch) was standing right in front of us. I didn’t know really what to expect at the end of the year after seeing where we were at that point, it frustrated me not being able to be there and knowing I wasn’t going to be there at the end of the year to help out as much as I could. So when I was warming up today there was a little frustration because I remember those feelings that I had last year. But then on the other side, like I was saying, just a lot of excitement to actually be back and be able to race with my other teammates in this pool.”
A reporter from ESPN asked why Phelps came at all last year to Austin if he was not competing.
“So I could train really, to be back in the meet environment - just see what it’s like,” Phelps said.
“I don’t know if he (looking toward coach Bob Bowman sitting next him) had some other little secret.”
“Apparently it was motivational on some level,” Bowman said, breaking up the entire room into laughter. But Phelps, like the man he is now, spoke back up.
“I don’t think I needed much more motivation,” Michael said with a smile.
“Well, I understand,” Bowman said. “I try to cover all the bases,”
Unknown to many in that room, Phelps had become a sort of visiting coach for several swimmers last year, advising in particular Jack Conger, who so impressed Phelps that he assessed the Longhorn as a swimmer in one word, a “stud.”
“Last year I was able to sit down with a couple of athletes and help them on a small, few technical things that I saw during their races and watch some video with them,” Phelps said, allowing himself to smile at the memories.
There was supposed to be an elephant in the room because of what had transpired that had led to Michael’s time off. But since he conquered it through rehab and has spoken about it with an eloquence and gentle tone that he hasn’t had before, it was more like a well-healed pet that he brought along to the press conference.
On the opening day of the Arena Pro Swim Series at Austin, Phelps won the 100 fly in “Phelpsian fashion”, roaring in the final 25 to seize the race that might as well be called the 100 Phly in homage to the man who owned it for so long. He went 51.9 in the fly, another impressive time especially considering the time of year in the quad.
“I thought I finished well in the (100) fly,” said Phelps, who also finished sixth in the 100 free opening night, an event he swam as much for the training value as the competition itself.
On Day Two, Phelps came up a little short in the 200 free, staying with the leaders and setting the pace in the first 100 but fading noticeably at the 150 mark. While this stop is another feel-good stop on his farewell tour, Phelps was disappointed in himself because it’s also a very serious marker in his training for his final Olympics. Ironically, he cares in part so much about the 200 because it is a race that had brought him into the spotlight in a different way -- as a fearless competitor -- with his bronze in it at the 2004 Games in Athens. But in Athens, he was mortal, and that didn’t sit well with him.
On Sunday, the final day of the meet, he was all Michael again. Ryan Lochte had won the 400 IM in a field that didn’t include Phelps but nonetheless scored one of the most impressive wins of the year. For the 200 IM on Sunday, Lochte had the lead early, but Phelps came back. In a race that has been as much for swim fans to watch between the superstars through the years and at the Olympics, Phelps came back and won in 1:58.00. Lochte took silver at 1:58.43. Phelps was the ultimate swim authority that everyone knows him to be, walking reporters through the evolution of the event since he’s been a part of it, mentioning swimmers from 2000 and how they swam it, and how he’s improving. He also singled out his competitive relationship as “something special.”
“Ryan is always someone who is really fun to race,” Phelps said. “I can look back throughout my career and he is probably the one who has really brought the most out of me. He will fight back, I know that - he is not someone who rolls over.”
Phelps felt good. He knows he can’t rewrite history, but he also knows he can right his legacy by writing another chapter in his own history. From his attitude to his effort in Austin, he was at his best.
“It’s still so weird for me to think we are the old people on the team,” Phelps said. “It’s crazy. But it’s so true. We are the old dudes and we have to figure out what we’re good at.”
Figuring it out. And further adding to his own considerable history.