SANTA CLARA -- Michael Phelps is crazy. He has nothing to prove by getting back in the pool. There is no reason for him to attempt a swimming comeback that can't possibly succeed. He could wind up looking like a total dope, or at best a well-intentioned but melancholy failure.
Michael Phelps is brilliant. He is the greatest Olympic winner of all time. The decision to end his retirement this spring and plunge back into the water will surely lead to Phelps climbing back on the medal podium at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Take your pick of those two previous paragraphs. One will surely turn out to be true.
Which one? I figured to get a better handle on it this weekend by checking out the Phelps Rebirth And Regeneration Tour, which is stopping at Santa Clara International Swim Center.
Say this much: Dude still looks damn good in a Speedo. Phelps says he was 25 pounds overweight a few months ago when he resumed training in Baltimore under longtime coach Bob Bowman. Most of that fat has been chlorinated away.
Saturday morning, as he stood on the starting block for 200-meter freestyle qualifying, those famous Phelps abdominal muscles were more than evident. But he was also rocking a full beard and mustache, as if to advertise that he's not yet ready to shave down and go as fast as possible.
Actually, when Phelps speaks, he doesn't sound sure himself when that might happen or where this journey is going. He will be at the national championships later this year. After that, Phelps is not committing to anything.
"You get a question like, 'What will this do for your legacy?' '' he said in an earlier session with reporters on the Santa Clara pool deck.
Right. Because that's a logical question. And the answer?
"It doesn't matter," Phelps said. "I'm doing this because I enjoy it. ... Whatever the American public says it will or won't do for my legacy, that doesn't bother me. I'm doing this because I enjoy being in the water, and I'm enjoying the competing. And that's the only reason I'm here."
Anything else? Yes.
"I am smiling a lot more and having fun," Phelps said.
Fair enough. But speaking strictly as just one obnoxious sports columnist, I will not disdain Phelps' ability to smile, have fun ... and still win Olympic races. I made that mistake in London at the 2012 Games. Phelps finished fourth in the 400 individual medley, more than four seconds behind winner Ryan Lochte. In print, I boldly proclaimed: "Not often do you witness an entire era coming to such a definitive and complete end."
Five days later in the 200 I.M., Phelps stormed back to defeat Lochte and win gold. No man had ever won the 200 I.M. at three straight Olympics. His 22 overall medals may never be topped. Phelps promised reporters that London was the last time he would swim competitively.
Instead, here he is. Phelps has enough money, principally from his corporate endorsements, that he never needs to work again, in or out of the pool. But he candidly admitted last winter that his mother was urging him to get back in the pool. And Phelps himself didn't enjoy looking in the mirror at his non-abs.
"I was trying to get back in shape, be healthier and happier," Phelps said.
Reading between the lines, a person might surmise that Phelps felt he needs the discipline of swimming in his life to avoid goofing off and falling into bad habits. He has earned the right to be America's party guest, but too much partying is never a good thing. Plus, it turns out that as much as Phelps once complained about workouts and early-morning laps, he sort of missed them.
"It's very hard to have something not be part of your life that's been part of your life," Phelps said. "As much as I say that I can't wait to get out of the pool, I think that's just a lie. Something keeps drawing me back into the water."
Which brings us to the progress report: The Santa Clara meet is the third one for Phelps since announcing his competitive return. But it is really his first complete weekend of serious swimming. At his initial two comeback meets, he dabbled, swimming in one or two finals. Here in Santa Clara, he has entered four events over three days.
Friday night, Phelps tied for first in the 100 butterfly and finished second in the 100 freestyle behind Olympic champ Nathan Adrian. Saturday, Phelps qualified with the fifth-best time in the 200 freestyle and finished second. Sunday, he is scheduled to race the 200 individual medley, his gold medal race from London, unless he scratches.
"We'll see how my body can do," Phelps said. "I have no idea what to really expect."
Considering that the body in question is indeed Michael Phelps' body, I predict no major setbacks. This isn't the same thing as Mark Spitz attempting a comeback at age 41. Phelps will be 29 years old later this month, the same age as Lochte. Phelps said there are "things that are still unfinished that I want to accomplish" but would not reveal what they were.
So. Which of those first two paragraphs in this column will be correct? Frankly, I think Phelps is both crazy and brilliant. But if you're asking whether we will see him in Rio two years from now ... I say don't bet against him when he shaves off that beard.
A look at Michael Phelps' historic success in Olympic competition, where he was won a record 22 total medals and 18 golds:
Games Gold Silver Bronze Total
2000 (Sydney) 0 0 0 0
2004 (Athens) 6 0 2 8
2008 (Beijing) 8 0 0 8
2012 (London) 4 2 0 6
Total 18 2 2 22
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