Phelps trying new approach in Charlotte
Michael Phelps is trying some new things: A more relaxed approach. A lighter workload. A willingness to accept that things aren't going to be perfect every day.
He insists that one thing hasn't changed at all.
His desire to win.
Phelps is preparing for the second meet in his swimming comeback, entering two events at the Charlotte Grand Prix. He will compete Friday in the 100-meter butterfly and 200 freestyle.
For now, results aren't that important. Phelps is mainly concerned with getting back into the peak physical condition that helped him become the most decorated athlete in Olympic history, most certainly with an eye toward adding to his legacy at the 2016 Rio Games.
He continues to show a more light-hearted side, constantly joking around with his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, and insisting that he just wants to have fun this time around.
But Phelps turned serious when asked if still had the killer instinct necessary to being a champion.
"Do you think I like to lose?" he said Thursday, not even waiting for the obvious reply. "I don't want anybody to beat me. Nobody. That's still the same."
In the first meet of his comeback at Mesa, Arizona, Phelps finished second to Ryan Lochte in the 100 fly and used his other event, the 50 freestyle, as a chance to get in more race training with the fly.
Phelps doesn't have to worry about Lochte this time around, even though the meet is being held at his longtime rival's new training base in Charlotte. Lochte aggravated his surgically repaired left knee at Mesa, forcing him to withdraw from this event.
Lochte was undergoing rehab Thursday, about the same time Phelps was training at the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center.
"He pushed it a little bit in Mesa, and the leg kind of flared up," said David Marsh, the coach at SwimMAC Carolina. "He's better off playing it safe at this point."
Even if Phelps won't get a chance to go against Lochte, this is another important step in the comeback. The 100 fly is surely one of the events Phelps would attempt as part of a downsized program in Rio — he is the three-time defending Olympic champion — and the 200 free could be in the mix as another possible individual race.
Phelps won the 200 free as part of his record eight gold medals in Beijing, but he withdrew from the event before the 2012 Games. Among those he'll be going against: French star Yannick Agnel and 2012 Olympian Conor Dwyer, two of his teammates at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club.
"I really started feeling better freestyle-wise in the last week or so," Phelps said. "It will be interesting to see how the 200 goes. I'm jumping in there with Yannick and Conor, people I train with every day. ... The biggest thing is just to see what kind of shape I'm in for the 200. I did a dinky 50 and 100 the last time. Now I'm moving up to the big leagues."
Phelps will swim in the preliminaries of both events about an hour apart Friday morning. If he qualifies for the evening finals in both, Bowman will decide if he swims another double or cuts back to one race.
Just being here is still a bit of a surprise to Bowman. During the duo's last appearance together in Charlotte two years ago, the coach was adamant that Phelps would stick with his plan to quit swimming for good after the London Olympics.
"Enough is enough," Bowman said in May 2012. "He needs to move on to something else. I need to move onto something else."
Bowman took a year off after the Olympics, but he eventually regained his desire to be on deck. It wasn't long before he was getting texts from Phelps about returning to the pool, as well.
Suddenly, a comeback made sense to both of them.
"I guess the reason I sanctioned this activity, or whatever it is, is he's doing it the right way and for the right reasons," Bowman said. "When he comes in the door, he has a smile on his face. I don't have to force him to do anything. As long as it continues like that, we should continue."
"Mozart should make music as long as he likes to make music," the coach said. "By the same token, it should be good music."
There's no doubt what kind of music Phelps wants to make.
While he hasn't said anything about his long-term goals — he never does — there's little doubt where he wants to end up.
The cap he wore during his training session had a logo that said it all: