By John Lohn
EAST MEADOW, New York, February 14. FLASH back to last summer in Montreal. The World Championships were coming to an end and Michael Phelps, partaking in his final press conference, went on the attack — against himself.
There he sat, picking apart — in his mind — what had gone wrong since his magical, eight-medal haul from the Athens Olympics. Primarily, he spoke of distractions, namely how travel and sponsorship obligations had cut into his training routine. There was no questioning his demeanor. Phelps wasn’t happy.
At the World Champs, Phelps was other-worldly in respect to the rest of his competition. He walked away with gold in the 200 individual medley and 200 freestyle and silver in the 100 butterfly. For good measure, he aided the United States to championships in the 400 and 800 freestyle relays.
In an attempt to challenge himself further, Phelps went into the World Championships with a different schedule than his norm. Rather than contest the 200 fly and 400 I.M., events in which he owned Olympic gold and global standards, Phelps embraced the 100 and 400 freestyles. Ultimately, he came up medal-free in those disciplines.
Still, by pushing the limit, Phelps proved himself a champion, even if the majority of the media opted to focus on his "shortcomings" rather than his gutsy approach and willingness to take a varied path. Phelps again came across as a champion during that final press conference, as his candid thoughts clearly identified a man not content.
So, what did Phelps do? Well, he got back to the regimen that vaulted him to levels never before known in the sport. And, a little more than a week ago, he received reassurance that he was close to his old form. While at the New York stop on the World Cup circuit, Phelps broke a pair of American short-course records and received a text message from his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, that spoke volumes: You’re Back.
During World Cup action, Phelps notched new American standards in the 200 freestyle (1:42.78) and 400 individual medley (4:03.99) and also collected wins in the 100 and 200 I.M. events. More impressive, though, was the way Phelps reacted to challenges by digging deep. In the 200 free, Phelps was deadlocked with Italy’s Filippo Magnini at the 150-meter mark, but found a way to edge the 100-meter world champ at the wall. As for the 200 I.M., Phelps tracked down Brazil’s Thiago Pereira in the last 50 meters for a come-from-behind decision.
Simply, Phelps showed guts, and that he’s back in a groove.
"I think this shows where I am," Phelps said after Saturday night’s action. "I’ve been able to get back in a routine and a rhythm. The past few months, I’ve been able to stay home, prepare for workouts and put in good workouts, like I used to. Bob really wanted me to get a few months of straight training without having to travel. It’s something I needed, to get back to the basics."
When Phelps followed Bowman to Ann Arbor from the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, he moved into a training atmosphere that is matched by few others. In training with Club Wolverine, Phelps is part of a daily routine that features the likes of Klete Keller, Peter Vanderkaay, Davis Tarwater and Chris DeJong. Obviously, workouts feature high levels of intensity.
"Even though Klete and I are in a separate lane, we have three-quarters of the American-record 800 free relay in the same pool," Phelps said, referring to Vanderkaay as the third member. "The atmosphere is remarkable."
With the spring schedule in the United State relatively tame, Phelps has decided to shave and taper for the American Short Course Championships in Austin, Texas from March 2-4. Although still undecided in reference to his schedule, Phelps is certain to challenge a handful of American marks.
"I’m pleased with how the weekend went," Phelps said of the World Cup. "The times I went are a huge confidence builder. They prove themselves."