Can't Miss Race of the Arena Grand Prix at Charlotte
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
When Michael Phelps announced his comeback a few short weeks ago, fans, media, and enthusiasts had questions: Had Phelps been training all along? When did he jump back into the pool? How long has he been in heavy training? Who does he train with? Rumored to have been back in the pool months before the comeback announcement, but never officially confirmed, Phelps’ comeback hints that the greatest Olympian of all-time might have something more to give. He might have a bit more passion, a bit more drive, and a few more Olympic medals to haul home.
Phelps told the media in his comeback press conference that he’s having “fun.” There were no hints of Rio. No broad declarations. No hints of a secretive piece of paper with goal times written on them that only he and Bowman know about.
He just kept using that word – “fun.”
Only, Phelps’ definition of “fun” and the literal definition of fun (enjoyment, amusement, or lighthearted pleasure) may be slightly different. Oh sure, Phelps wants to hang out, see friends, relax in the hot tub, and swim some laps. But he also wants to get in shape, win races, a few medals, and continue being the best. And Phelps’ training program – and his North Baltimore Aquatic Club training teammates, some of whom are Olympic gold medalists themselves -- is the perfect place to have some of that “Phelpsian phun.”
Phelps and North Baltimore (and coach Bob Bowman) is like peanut butter and jelly: You can’t have one without the other. No other swimmer, from my recollection, has trained exclusively with one coach for the duration of a career. And no other swimmer has had so much success.
Four years ago at the Mutual of Omaha Pan Pacific Championships, Phelps looked like he was having the antithesis of “fun.” He looked winded. He looked tired. He scratched the 200 IM – one of his best events. I remember standing near the warm-down pool and watching Phelps as he just stood on the gutters, hunched over, hands on his knees, staring at the water for an eternal moment. He looked as though he’d rather be anywhere but by the pool.
When Phelps basically said, “See ya wouldn’t want to be ya” after the 2012 London Olympics, I – and almost everyone else – believed him. He accomplished everything there was to accomplish. He did everything he wanted to do. And he gave up so much in the process. Long hours, years without a day off, an entire childhood and teenagehood given away to a sport that requires unparalleled mental and physical stamina. It made sense Phelps would retire, swim off into the sunset, financially secure, legend in place, and content with a full and accomplished career.
Then he came back.
Well, we’re slowly figuring that out. But I keep going to that press conference where Phelps frequently said that he’s having “fun.” In fact, during his comeback-announcement press conference, I counted that word “fun” and noticed that he said it seven times on separate occasions.
But for Phelps, fun also takes on a whole new definition compared to the Average American. For Phelps, fun means getting in shape, competing, racing, and, of course, winning. You can’t win 18 Olympic gold medals and not enjoy the painful pleasure of a grueling, mind-numbing workout.
This weekend at the Arena Grand Prix at Charlotte, Phelps will swim in a new event in his comeback tour, the 200m freestyle. It is in this event that we’ll see exactly why Phelps came back to the sport, and maybe, what keeps him coming back.
See, a while back, France’s Yannick Agnel moved to Baltimore to train. You might remember Agnel as the 2012 Olympic gold medalist in the 200m freestyle. He dominated the field. He left no questions who was the greatest 200m freestyler in the world. Even Phelps didn’t want to race him, in part because he knew he probably could not beat him.
Then Agnel moved to Phelps’ backyard training ground. Imagine you’re the greatest Olympian ever and one of the greatest and most talented freestylers moves into your backyard. Begins training with your coach. Then, another freestyler, Conor Dwyer, moves in, too.
Wouldn’t your curiosity be piqued? Wouldn’t you wander down to Meadowbrook Pool, just to take a look? Maybe grab your suit, join in the “fun”? Just a bit?
This is all speculative, but I believe that Phelps’ version of “fun” is not only the literal definition, but also that sick-minded uber-competitive version of “fun” all swimmers secretly employ: He wanted to train with the world’s best in his backyard pool. He wanted to get back in-shape, go practice with some Olympic gold medalists, push his body, challenge his mind, tell some jokes, be around old friends, and see what happened.
This weekend’s Can’t Miss Race is, obviously, the men’s 200m freestyle. North Baltimore training teammates Phelps, Angel, and Dwyer all converge and compete for the first time under the same coach and same swim cap.
Don’t miss it. Yet, even if you do, I think we’re bound to see this match-up again, and again, and again, possibly all the way to Rio.
Watch the live stream of the Arena Grand Prix at Charlotte on usaswimming.org or Deck Pass Plus. Universal Sports will have live coverage on Friday and Saturday at 6 p.m. ET.