Can't Miss Race of the Arena Grand Prix at Mesa
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
It’s “Event 8” on the heat sheet. The number is fitting.
This morning, when Michael Phelps climbs atop the starting blocks at the Arena Grand Prix at Mesa, he’ll do so in the 100m butterfly. Event #8. An event he has dominated. An event number that means so much to his journey and his career.
He’ll dive in, and officially announce his comeback with what he does best:
Michael Phelps is the Mozart of our sport. Fans have never seen a talent like him, and, maybe, never will again. The fact that we get this comeback tour, or farewell tour, or 2016 Rio tour, or “Swimming Is Fun” tour, or whatever you want to call it, is a benefit to the sport, swim fans, coaches, and all Olympic sports.
When Michael Phelps retired two years ago, he said he’d never return to the competitive side of swimming. We believed him. Why wouldn’t we? He accomplished everything there was to accomplish. He won everything there was to win. He broke world records, smashed barriers, defied expectations. He changed swimming: There were live NBC broadcasts of the Olympic Trials, numerous magazine covers, an appearance on Saturday Night Live, record-breaking increases in swim membership, and, of course, he became the greatest Olympian of all-time.
Now that Phelps is back (there’s even a hashtag, #PhelpsIsBack), people want explanations: Why? How? What happened to those declarations of never swimming again? Why are you back?
The thing is, like a concert pianist returning to the state for an encore, we shouldn’t question this return of Phelps. We should sit back and listen to Mozart do his thing. We should enjoy. Phelps is human, and the more pressure applied, the less fun this return to swimming becomes. Phelps has endured more pressure than anyone else in Olympic sports.
Remember 2008? The intensity? The exhaustion on his face in those post-race interviews?
So, when Michael Phelps steps up to the 100m butterfly this morning -- when he swims, no matter his time, or what place he finishes, or what shape he’s in -- enjoy it.
No one knows what the future holds, or what this journey will “mean,” or if Phelps will keep swimming towards the Olympic Trials. He might not. He might not want to. He might see this increased attention and pressure and say, “You know what? I remember all this, and I’m good with my quiet lap pool.”
Or he could go to Rio. Or 2020. Or 2024. Dara Torres proved age is not an impossible barrier. Michael Phelps proved barriers are nothing. Time and time again, athletes seek out great challenges for themselves. No doubt we could see something special from Phelps in this new chapter of his swim career.
But what I hope is that Michael Phelps has fun with this. Remember folks, this is a guy who has had the weight of the world on his shoulders since he was 15-years-old. He traded in his childhood for countless hours in an aquatic concrete hole. Of course, he’s gotten so much back from this sport – confidence, money, fame, glory, etc..
However, it would be nice to see the greatest athlete in the world having fun again. Like he did in London. Phelps smiled in London. He laughed in London. He seemed to enjoy himself in the last meet of his career. (Well, as of today, second-to-last?)
The thing is, I’m roughly the same age as Michael Phelps. Swimming now is more fun than it was ten years ago. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s lower expectations. Maybe it’s more life experience. I think when you experience more in this world, you realize how wonderful – how much of a luxury – swimming truly is. To be free in the water. To push your body for the sake of pushing your body. To swim just to swim. To fly.
Which is why I’ll be watching this 100m butterfly. I’ll think, “It’s nice to see you back, Michael Phelps.” And I’ll hope someone tells him the same advice I always got when I was stepping up to the blocks, the same advice I tell swimmers competing in their first ever race:
Let’s have some fun.
Watch the live webcast of the Arena Grand Prix at Mesa with prelims at 10 a.m. MT and finals at 6 p.m. MT.