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Thursday, May 15, 2014
Will other swimmers break through?

By Jim Caple

Michael Phelps
Michael Phelps will compete in his second event since coming out of retirement -- the Charlotte Grand Prix on May 16.

MESA, Ariz. -- There was so much media and fan attention for Michael Phelps' return to competitive swimming last month, that fellow Olympic gold medalist Natalie Coughlin noticed a helicopter hovering over Mesa's Skyline Aquatic Center for a morning warm-up.

"I knew it wasn't just a traffic copter because it was 10:30 and there was no traffic," Coughlin said. "It was just hovering over warm-ups and I thought, 'Oh great. I hope Michael rappels out of it and makes a really big entrance.'"

Phelps didn't jump out of the chopper - he's a swimmer, not a diver -- but he did bring a tremendous amount of attention to a Grand Prix swim meet that would otherwise have been ignored. More than 50 reporters and cameramen crowded the temporary tent for his press conferences, including media from Brazil and France. Fans filled the stands for each event at the Mesa Grand Prix, with some wearing T-shirts with Phelps' name on them.

So, if you were an aspiring male swimmer, would you be excited about Phelps' return bringing so much attention to your sport in a non-Olympic year, or upset that you now might have to compete against the greatest swimmer in history for those precious, limited spots on the U.S. Olympic team?

"That's a good question," three-time gold medalist Rowdy Gaines said. "If I'm looking at it as Rowdy Gaines 30 years ago, I'd hate it, right? Because this is a guy I have to beat. So rather than two spots for a race [in the Olympic trials], I'm fighting for one spot.

Michael Andrew
Michael Andrew signed an endorsement deal last year to become the youngest swimmer in history to turn pro.

"But if I'm Rowdy Gaines in today's age, I would love it, because there are more financial opportunities."

Indeed. Michael Andrew is one of the top young American swimmers and he signed an endorsement deal last year just after his 14th birthday, making him the youngest pro swimmer in U.S. history.

"I enjoy seeing Phelps back in the sport," said Andrew, who turned 15 last month. "I'm super happy he's back because he's brought a lot more to the sport."

And the money that is being brought in allows swimmers to stay in their sport longer. "When I won in 1984, I was 25 and I was the third-oldest swimmer to win a gold medal at that point," Gaines said. "And that's the average age of an Olympic swimmer now, and that's because of the money."

The good part of that is we get to see Phelps come back in his late 20s and renew his great rivalry with Ryan Lochte (who is a year older). But when will younger swimmers come along to give non-hardcore fans another compelling storyline to follow?

Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, said it's a little worrisome that the Phelps-Lochte rivalry once again was a story at this Grand Prix meet two years after the London Olympics. But, he added, "The good news is there are a lot of good, young kids under them, but they haven't made the jump to the very top level. They've made the jump to the level right under [Phelps and Lochte], which is good, and there are a lot of them. So somebody is going to step up."

Andrew might be that swimmer. He has set over 30 age-group records and says one of his goals is to compete at the 2016 Rio Olympics. "It's a tall order," Andrews said. "It's tough to make it. I'll be 17 by then, but I believe in myself. I've done crazier things."

So has Phelps. After all, he competed in his first Olympics at age 15 in Sydney in 2000.

"Obviously the kid is a talented swimmer," Phelps said of Andrew. "He's broken a bunch of records, countless age-group records. I'm excited to see how he can transition into the long course. For me, short course [25-meter/yard pool lengths] is something that helps for training, but long course is where all the big meets are.

"It just really depends on how he transitions from the short course to long course."

Andrew said he prefers the long course. Despite his young age, he already has a height advantage at 6-foot-5. "The kid is massive, huge," Phelps said. "He's the same size I am -- or bigger."

Andrew said it had been his dream to compete in the same meet as Phelps, but he didn't feel nervous when he finally got that chance in Mesa. If anything, he said he felt calmer than normal there. Because of one swimmer scratching out of the event, they didn't swim in the same 50-meter freestyle heat there, but Andrew's lack of butterflies that day was still a positive sign.

"When anyone swims, you can't look at them as unbeatable or and you can't touch them. You can't idolize your competitors," Coughlin said. "That's where I think a lot of people make their mistakes, when they're at almost that top tier but not quite there and idolizing their competitors. You'll never beat them if you think that way. You always have to think you're better, even if you're not.

"I think the really good, elite swimmers are happy to see Michael back and pushing them and competing. And the ones who are a little lower on that totem pole might be nervous, but it makes everyone better."

Phelps has an enormous impact on swimming and the attention it receives. When he left the meet in Mesa, so did much of the media. And without him there for the penultimate evening's finals, the crowd was so subdued that the arena announcer felt compelled to say, "There is no extra charge for cheering."

There also was no helicopter hovering over the pool.

Whether it's before or after the Rio Olympics, Phelps eventually will retire and not return. And that point, someone will have to step up and fill his spot in the spotlight.

"There comes a time where some of the older swimmers will end up stopping and retiring and going out," Andrew said. "As a younger generation, we have to come up and make it stronger. There are a lot of strong age-group phenoms that are coming up and I'm excited to be a part of it."