Phelps on first race back: 'It was strange'

April, 24, 2014
Apr 24
5:40
PM ET

MESA, Ariz. -- Michael Phelps couldn't wait to get back in the pool and compete again.

After his 18-month retirement from competitive swimming, Phelps worked his way past a multitude of cameras to the starting area Thursday. Then he stepped up on the starting block earlier than he normally does, feeling antsier before a race than he has since he probably was 10 years old. And once he was on the block and could hear the crowd buzz, he actually smiled.

And this was not at an Olympic or world or U.S. championship event. It was a Grand Prix meet. And just the morning heat in the 100-meter butterfly, at that.

"I was just so excited to swim," Phelps said after winning his qualifying group. "It was strange. I was probably up to the block a little too early, but I was just so excited to get in and race. You're going to hear this word come out of my mouth a lot -- this was fun.

"I felt like I was a summer-league swimmer today. I was so excited to get out of the block. I felt like I should have my heat and lane written on my hand in case I forget it."

Well, in case he did forget, he would have had plenty of people to point him in the right direction. Phelps' first competitive race since retiring after the 2012 London Olympics drew a sellout crowd to the outdoor pool at Mesa's Skyline Aquatics Center on a sunny, 90-degree day. And there were nearly as many reporters and camera people on hand, as well, for Phelps' return to competitive swimming in the 100 butterfly.

There was so much attention, Phelps said rival and teammate Ryan Lochte joked that the two Olympic medalists should just mess around and advance to the C final and see which race got the most hype. "I said, 'No, let's try to get into the big final,'" Phelps said.

They did. Right after Lochte swam a 52.94 in the 13th heat, Phelps swam the top qualifying time of 52.84 in the final heat. He was second after the first 50 meters, then took control in the final 50 and won easily. The final is this evening, tentatively scheduled for 9:18 p.m. ET.

"I could tell when he came in and I saw him warm up that it was going to be good, that he's feeling good, that he was into it," coach Bob Bowman said. "He's got one race under his belt and he made the nationals qualifying cut."

True. Because Phelps had officially retired after the 2012 Olympics, his time re-qualified him for the U.S. national standard. Asked when he last had to swim a qualifying time for the U.S. team, Phelps thought a bit and said, "When I was 13?"

When a reporter later asked about his goals and the 2016 Rio Olympics, Phelps shrugged it off. "Hey, I just made the national cut! One step at a time!" he said. "Nah, I have a race tonight and that's all I'm concentrating on right now."

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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