Commentary

Return won't tarnish Phelps' legacy

Updated: April 24, 2014, 1:36 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

MESA, Ariz. -- We will see where this comeback takes Michael Phelps. We will see whether it ends in Rio de Janeiro at the 2016 Summer Olympics (or, who knows, Tokyo in 2020) and whether he receives more medals atop podiums or walks away from the pool deck with nothing but his swimsuit and goggles.

But here's one thing his return will not do. It will not diminish what Phelps has already accomplished. Twenty-two Olympic medals, including 18 gold, won't tarnish just because an athlete continues pursuing his passion as long as his body allows.

"I'm doing this for me," Phelps said Wednesday at Mesa's Skyline Aquatic Center. "If I don't become as successful as you all think I would be or should be, and you think it tarnishes my career, that's your opinion. I'm doing this because I want to come back and I enjoy being in the pool and I enjoy being in the sport of swimming.

[+] EnlargeMichael Phelps
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesMichael Phelps returned to the pool Wednesday for a training session ahead of this week's Grand Prix meet in Mesa, Ariz.

"I'm having fun with what I'm doing. [Coach] Bob [Bowman] and I can do anything we put our minds to. That's what we've done in the past. I am looking forward to wherever this road takes me and I guess the journey will start tomorrow."

Tomorrow is Thursday, when Phelps swims in the 100-meter butterfly at the 2014 Arena Grand Prix in Mesa. That, and Friday's 50 free, will be his first competition since the 2012 London Olympics, where he announced he was retiring from competitive swimming. Given that he is still just 28 and was near the top of his game when he walked away, it wasn't surprising that his retirement lasted about 18 months.

"I traveled. I played golf. I gained 30 pounds. I had a lot of fun," Phelps said of his golden years, err, golden months of retirement. "But there was something that I missed. Being able to be back in the pool and going back to the pool in North Baltimore and swimming with the group we have now, it's incredible. ... I just missed being back in the water. It has been fun and we'll see what happens here."

"He's definitely somebody I looked up to when I was younger, so it's great that he's here and other young people can look up to him," 2012 Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky said. "It's great for USA Swimming that he's back. It will be exciting to see how he does."

How will he do? Will he be in Rio? Phelps previously said he would be there watching from the stands with his mother. Wednesday, he said he will be in Rio, but "whether it's in the pool or in the stands, time will tell. I really can't say it enough. I really am enjoying being back in the pool."

Phelps said he first started training over the winter to lose weight and get back into shape, then planned to see what happened from there. He said he weighed 187 pounds at the London Olympics, but shot up to 225 (what a pig!) in the months after.

"When he first came back," Bowman said, "he was sooo out of shape ..."

"Easy! Easy!" Phelps said jokingly in his defense. "Sugarcoat it, at least."

"... So it took a while to get to a point where he can do this in public," Bowman continued. "That was by January. And by then, I thought, if he wanted to [come back], he could. And he was doing well in practice. It was a process. It is a process."

It is a long process. There are still more than two years before the 2016 Olympics, plenty of time for Phelps to grow older, and possibly grow tired again of staring at a black stripe on the bottom of the pool, lap after lap after lap after lap ...

But, right now, Phelps said repeatedly Wednesday he is enjoying himself immensely. Unlike certain stretches heading into 2012, he said he is smiling and joking at practice. "For me, going into 2012, it was hard," he said. "There were a lot of ups and downs. There were a lot of times it was tough to get motivated, but I can't say it enough -- I'm having fun."

That's what makes this comeback easy; well, easy not counting the training. This time, there should be no pressure, certainly nothing like he faced in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008. If he wins more medals, great; if he doesn't, so what? Phelps has already accomplished more than any other swimmer, more than any other Olympian. He doesn't need to prove anything more.

"I'm doing this because I want to," he said. "No one is forcing me to do this or that. I want to be back in the water."

After all, there is always time for golf. Olympic swimming, however, has a smaller window. It's best to jump back in the pool while you still can. The regret of not trying would be a far worse emotion for Phelps to feel than if this comeback simply doesn't add to his medal count.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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