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Column by John Lohn
IRVINE, California, August 19. SITTING at breakfast with Michael Phelps last month, Mark Schubert knew the wheels were turning in the 16-time Olympic medalist's head. Schubert, the National Team Head Coach and General Manager of USA Swimming, asked Phelps if he planned to train for the 400 individual medley in the leadup to the London Games.
The answer Schubert received did not guarantee anything, but it at least provided hope that a return by Phelps to the sport's decathlon was a possibility. Suddenly, an event Phelps said was part of his past was no longer dead. Actually, it was on life support and the signs of a full recovery were present.
Well, that recovery – painfully – came full circle Thursday morning when Phelps, the two-time defending Olympic champion in the 400 IM, raced in the preliminaries of the discipline at the Pan Pacific Championships. It was Phelps' first foray in the event since he set a world record of 4:03.84 en route to the first of his eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics.
"It brings an incredible smile to my face," Schubert said. "We went to breakfast in July and I asked him if he was going to train for the 400 IM. He looked at me and told me yes. He said it is a medal that is so special to him. So, I knew he was thinking about it, but I didn't know for sure if he was going to do it."
There was no storybook return at the William Woollett Aquatic Center. Two heats after American teammates Ryan Lochte and Tyler Clary scorched to respective times of 4:08.77 and 4:09.20, Phelps labored to a clocking of 4:15.38. While it was the fourth-fastest morning swim in the field, Phelps didn't advance to the championship final due to the Pan Pacific rule that only two swimmers per nation can compete in the medal heat.
Once Lochte and Clary threw down the gauntlet, and considering Phelps lack of, well, typical Phelpsian fitness, it became questionable whether the greatest swimmer in history had enough fuel to power into the final. By the end of the backstroke leg, it was clear he did not. Rather than swim the race again at night, Phelps opted to scratch from the consolation final and focus his energy on his leg of the American 800 freestyle relay.
During his post-race interview, Phelps didn't say whether his return to the event, arguably his second-best discipline behind the 200 butterfly, would be short-lived. More or less, he left the door open that he'll keep the event on his program. In all likelihood, coach Bob Bowman will have a definitive say on whether that scenario unfolds.
"I knew it would be painful, but I'm happy I did it," Phelps said. "It's a reminder that I need to be in better shape. It's going to have to be a better-judged decision once I'm in better training. After the race, I told (Lochte and Clary) that I wasn't going 4:07. No shot. They thought I was playing coy, but I knew.""
After Nationals, when Clary was 4:14-low in finishing behind Lochte, eyebrows raised over the state of the distance medley in the United States. Bowman suggested Phelps' reintroduction to the 400 IM was partially due to that showing. However, Lochte and Clary clearly demonstrated otherwise in the first preliminary heat.
By not making the championship final of the 400 IM, it marks the first time Phelps has missed the medal race in international competition since the 2005 World Championships in Montreal in the 400 freestyle. Yet, a certain lens must be used to view that outcome, considering the format used at Pan Pacs and the way it differs from the World Champs. Under the setup used at the World Championships, Phelps would have reached the final.
"It's a reality check," said Bowman, who has long desired Phelps' return to the 400 medley. "Hopefully, it might encourage him for the future. It was a little experiment we'll draw on in October and November."
On this day, we saw a rarity from Michael Phelps: Struggle. Still, it doesn't mean the 400 IM is an event in which he cannot capture past glory. There's no mystery that he's not on his A-Game, as was the case during those spectacular performances at the 2007 World Championships and the last Olympiad. He merely has to want to stick with it and get his training back on track.
Let's hope that's the mentality that prevails.
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