SANTA CLARA, Calif. — U.S. Olympic coach Bob Bowman didn’t expect Michael Phelps to return to the pool once the world’s most famous swimmer retired after the London Games.
“Not in a million years,” Bowman said Thursday at the Santa Clara Swim Club, where he will coach Phelps this weekend in the third meet of his comeback.
Phelps, 28, has entered four events starting Friday in what amounts to his first full meet since returning last year.
The comeback of the most decorated athlete in Olympic history will highlight the Arena Grand Prix Santa Clara along with the season debut of Cal sophomore Missy Franklin. The meet that runs through Sunday is the last major tuneup before U.S. nationals Aug. 6-10 in Irvine.
The nationals serve as a qualifier for the summer’s biggest meet, the Pan-Pacific Championships in August in Australia. They also will help select the 2015 World Championship team.
Phelps isn’t thinking about any of that now. Or at least, he isn’t saying if he is.
“Instead of being on the four-year plan, we’re on the four-hour plan,” Bowman said. “If he does well tomorrow, we’ll go to the next day.”
A buoyant Phelps looked relaxed Thursday at the George F. Haines International Aquatic Center wearing a black ballcap, gray T-shirt and electric lime yellow shorts. His smile underscored his state of mind: happy that he has shed the burdens of having to win every time he jumps off a starting block. This time he is swimming for the love of his sport.
The million-dollar smile also makes his coach happy.
But Bowman was skeptical last year when Phelps floated the idea of a comeback.
“No,” Bowman told Phelps. “This is insane. Remember how much you hate it, you don’t want to do this anymore.”
The more they talked it over during a dinner, the more Bowman heard something new from the athlete he had coached since childhood.
“So, you’re telling me that although you have enough money in the world, the freedom to go anywhere you want, that there is something that swimming provides you’re not getting on the golf course?” Bowman asked.
Exactly, the 6-foot-4 Phelps replied.
Bowman, who has stockpiled world-class swimmers at his North Baltimore Aquatics Club, set ground rules. If Phelps wanted to return, he’d have to be disciplined.
“You can’t come once a week,” Bowman said.
Phelps had no intentions of being lackadaisical. He didn’t inherit that gene. Phelps says he initially returned to lose some weight.
“It wasn’t like when I got back in I knew—
Bowman interrupted: “It’s was like, ‘Ouch, this is really hard.’”
Phelps bemoaned the fact he returned to his chlorinated life 25 pounds overweight. But as the fat disappeared and the fish-like sensations of the water returned, Phelps wanted more.
Whether it leads to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and the pursuit of even more medals, Phelps isn’t sure.
About the only certainty is what race he won’t do: the 400-meter individual medley. Swimming’s version of the decathlon was part of Phelps’ repertoire when he won an unprecedented eight gold medals at the Beijing Games in 2008.
“I will never swim that race again,” said Phelps, who finished fourth in London after winning the event in 2004 and ‘08.
Reminded that he said he wouldn’t swim competitively again two years ago, the Olympic champion was firm.
“That one is pretty safe,” Phelps said.
But Phelps has entered in the 200 IM at Santa Clara. He opens the meet Friday with the 100 freestyle and 100 butterfly. He also plans to test the 200 freestyle Saturday in what Bowman described as “experimenting.”
In days past, Phelps used to swim at least six events in Santa Clara, but his coach sees potential despite the scaled-down schedule.
Bowman said Phelps has the ability to return to the top of swimming if he is compelled to train.
“We’d like to go to meets and have times that mean something,” he added. “He can definitely swim top-ranked times in the world.”
Phelps wasn’t exactly saying as much Thursday.
“But that’s what we would like to do,” Bowman said.