Phelps savors triumphant return
Michael Phelps warms up in the practice pool during day one of the Arena Grand Prix at the Skyline Aquatic Center on April 24, 2014 in Mesa, Arizona - by Christian Petersen
As so often in a storied career that included 22 Olympic medals -- 18 of them gold -- Phelps made it look easy, powering to a comfortable win in the final heat in 52.84sec to launch a comeback that could take him to the 2016 Rio Olympics.
But Phelps said his first race since the London Olympics brought on a rush of emotions he hadn't felt since his age-group days.
"I felt like a summer league swimmer today," Phelps said. "I felt like I should have my heat and lane number written on my hand in case I forget it."
Ryan Lochte, swimming in the heat ahead of Phelps, clocked the morning's second-fastest time of 52.94, which means the longtime friends and rivals -- known for their individual medley battles -- will go head-to-head in Thursday night's final.
"We love racing each other," Phelps said. "Obviously, neither one of us wants each other to win, that's the best thing about it."
Phelps and Lochte had a friendly exchange behind the blocks -- made possible in part by Phelps's early arrival for his race.
"I was so excited to swim," said Phelps, who said he was a little surprised that he produced a well-controlled race. "It was fun to get the first race out of the way."
- 'It's amazing' -
"Fun" is the theme so far of Phelps's comeback, with the 28-year-old saying he's enjoying every relaxed minute.
A cheer went up and cellphone cameras clicked as Phelps mounted the starting block. He delivered his trademark armswing prior to the start and then he was off.
"When you hear the roar of the stands, it's amazing," said Phelps, who just couldn't keep his familiar pre-race scowl in place.
"That's part of the reason I was smiling before I stepped up on the blocks," he said.
Although Phelps bills himself as a swimming "grandfather" now, the chance to see him swim has already galvanized the sport's fans.
Tickets to all sessions at the 1,200-seat Skyline Aquatic Center in suburban Phoenix were sold out the day after Phelps announced on April 14 that he would return -- compared to one sold-out session for the Saturday night finals last year.
"Not typical," a USA Swimming spokesman said as he glanced at the stands packed for Thursday's heats.
A throng of fans snapped pictures as Phelps headed to the warm-up pool, where longtime coach Bob Bowman saw just what he wanted to see.
"I could tell when he came in and I first saw him warm up that it was going to be good," said Bowman, who was just as pleased with what he saw in the race.
"His stroke was good," Bowman said. "That's the thing I like to see."
- On the road to Rio? -
While many think Phelps is a lock to swim in Rio, the man himself keeps cautioning that it's a long road to 2016.
But his time on Thursday put him easily inside the qualifying time of 54.79sec required to make the US championships in August, where he'll have to swim to qualify for the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships and 2015 World Championships in Russia.
"Yes! I made my national cut," said Phelps, who said he didn't recall having to worry about that since he was 13.
The 100 media credentials issued were five times as many as last year for the meeting, which is the fourth of six events in the Grand Prix series sponsored by suitmaker Arena.
Phelps had to elbow his way past a few video cameras to get behind his block and stretch, but there was none of the pressure apparent during his stunning run to eight gold medals in eight events at the Beijing Games, or his four-gold performance in what was billed as his final Olympics in London.
"I'm a 28-year-old man who is stepping up on the block and having fun," Phelps said. "And that's why I'm here."