COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Michael Phelps has nothing left to prove in the pool. He’s won 22 Olympic medals, including a beyond-belief collection of 18 golds. At this moment, some 5-year-old is moving fast in a pool while his mom shouts, “He’s going to be another Michael Phelps!”
His name is known by your grandmother and your daughter. He is, simply, The Swimmer.
The mystery is why Phelps would return to the realm where he never will top what he’s already done.
He’s coming back because he has nothing better to do.
Phelps begins testing the waters Thursday at the Arena Grand Prix in Mesa, Ariz. He declines to confirm this is the first stroke toward chasing additional medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics, but everyone knows he would never put himself through eight months of training to compete in what amounts to an intramural meet. He wants more Olympic medals.
He’s only 28, six months younger than LeBron James. He’s young enough and talented enough to win medals at Rio and the 2020 Games. He could collect 30 medals before he’s through.
Rowdy Gaines, a three-time swimming gold medalist, enthusiastically supports Phelps’ return.
“Michael, plain and simple, is a competitor and he’s still young and he’s still in the prime of his life,” Gaines told The Fan in Baltimore. “Why not?”
Phelps never again will approach the dominance of the 2008 version of, yes, himself.
I sat poolside in 2008 for much of what is known as the “Haul of China.” Phelps won eight golds at the Beijing Games while setting seven world records. Phelps splashing toward the wall in 2008 was similar to Ted Williams pounding fastballs in 1941 or Magic Johnson throwing behind-the-back passes in 1985 or Patrick Roy performing in-front-of-the-net acrobatics in 1999. This was unfiltered greatness.
In 2012, I sat poolside in London as Phelps neared the finish line in the 200 butterfly. An English tabloid reporter sitting beside me shouted obscenities while Phelps chased his record-breaking 18th overall medal. A gold seemed inevitable. This was, after all, history’s greatest swimmer.
South Africa’s Chad le Clos passed Phelps in the final stretch. For those who watched Phelps during his 2008 zenith, this was a surreal moment. Phelps getting passed? What was next? The sun rising in the west over Pikes Peak?
London offered the made-in-heaven moment for Phelps to wave goodbye. He was fading, but this was not an ugly, turn-your-eyes away fade. He was not what he once had been, but he remained close.
Phelps is not the world’s most well-rounded human. He’s the creature from the clear lagoon. The pool is where he’s spent most of his waking hours since he was 7. The pool is where he created the swimming monster who dazzled and intimidated the world.
Phelps never will dominate the rest of humanity in anything other than swimming. He’ll never come close. This is why he’s returning to the pool.
He needs to be careful. Comebacks are tricky creatures.
There’s the George Foreman model, where a hard-partying young boxer who never quite makes peace with his potential returns as a God-loving middle-aged man and wins the title.
And there’s the Muhammad Ali model, where an icon returns with dyed hair and spongy gut and suffers through a beating at the hands of a reluctant Larry Holmes.
Michael Jordan delivers one comeback for the ages, winning three titles after a premature farewell, and a second comeback he forever regrets.
I wish what many wish. Those who witnessed Phelps in his glory, at his peak, don’t want to watch an aging version of The Swimmer.
Once, as he splashed joyfully along, he awakened us to limitless power and possibility.
Now, he will bring into focus the foe none of us outraces: