GOLD COAST, Australia (AP) — Michael Phelps gave an incredulous look, an almost indignant response and strode away to collect a gold medal.
The most decorated swimmer in history had completed his first meet in international competition since coming out of retirement by helping the United States win the medley relay Sunday, the last event of the Pan Pacific championships.
So he was stunned by a question in a post-race interview relating to him being beaten in his section of a relay two nights previously.
As he pulled his tracksuit over his swimming trunks in preparation for the medal ceremony, he went over the question repeatedly with people around him. Then he shrugged it off and ran out to join his teammates on the podium.
Four months into his comeback, Phelps finished the Pan Pacs with three gold and two silver medals, a decent return by any measure.
It’s just a sign that he is, as he describes it, super competitive. His comeback is for real. He wants to again be unbeatable.
This time last year, Phelps was more inclined to be swinging golf clubs than swimming. He retired after the London Olympics and gained weight. Now he’s back on track for the Rio Olympics in 2016.
“It was, I think, a successful year,” Phelps said. “Obviously I’d like to win every single race I swim in. But, doesn’t always happen. It was a learning experience, that’s most important.”
His long-time coach, Bob Bowman, was among those who noticed a big leap in Phelps’ performances since the U.S. nationals earlier this month.
“I’m extremely pleased. Just the way he swam those things. Really, that looked like the real Michael there, so that was very good,” Bowman said of Phelps’ butterfly leg in the 4×100 medley relay. “The second 50 of that, that’s about as good as his butterfly gets.”
Earlier in the evening, the 29-year-old American had been beaten in the 200 IM final by two-hundredths of a second by Kosuke Hagino of Japan – a silver medalist at the last world championships – who won in 1 minute, 56.02 seconds.
That’s all part of Phelps feeling his way back into competition, mentally and physically.
“Today my body was hurting. I woke up this morning and I was in pain,” he said. After the morning preliminaries and a nap, he felt better but was a little nervous ahead of the night finals, admitting he was “a little peppy” in the warmups.
“The one thing, if I look back at the 200 IM and could say I would change anything, I think I’d say `step on the first 100,'” he said. But, “For my first real big international meet back, we accomplished everything we wanted to. We were able to find out some of the things I need to improve on over the next year, and things I want to improve on.
“It is frustrating at times, but that’s usually how I respond well.”
Leading into the last night, Phelps won the 100 butterfly and helped the U.S win the 4×200 relay – although he later joked that he got “dusted” by a Japanese swimmer in the relay, a throwaway line that came back on him in his post-race interview Sunday. He also earned a silver medal in the 4×100 relay and had an encouraging fourth place in the 100 free. A comparatively light program for a man who won eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games – among the 18 gold and 22 medals in all that he won at the Olympics.
After the nationals, where he placed second in the 100 fly and 200 IM, and seventh in the 100 freestyle, he was upset with the way he was hitting the walls, saying he was making mistakes young swimmers make in age-group competition.
After the Pan Pacs, where strong wind and heavy rain hampered competition on three of the four days at the outdoor pool, Phelps seemed satisfied with his progress. He surged to the wall in every race, and the only American to beat him in a final was Nathan Adrian, the 2012 Olympic champion who placed second in the 100 free.
“It shows that I can … finish races well. I finished pretty strong in all of my swims,” he said. “Now, I really just have to step on the first half.”
Bowman said Phelps’ inclination to hold something in reserve for the finish was good, and predicts faster starts will come with time.
“It’s the smart thing to do – he’s probably the smartest swimmer out there in terms of knowing what his body needs to do,” Bowman said. “He did what he had to do for this meet. A year from now, he’ll have the gas in the tank that he won’t have to be so tentative.”