Phelps' comeback hits the wall
FOR more than a decade, Michael Phelps was known for his numbing consistency. He won swim races in sickness and in health, despite bad starts, poor finishes, untied swimsuits and malfunctioning goggles.
In his return to the sport, it did not take him long to realise how much thinner his margin of error had become.
At the United States long-course national championships on Wednesday, his first major national competition since 2012, he made his opening event the 100m freestyle, an event he seldom used to race in major meets.
He looked strong over the first 50m, but misjudged his turn badly and ended up having to rev up from a near standstill after barely grazing the wall. Eighth at the 50m, he finished seventh, in 49.17 sec.
Olympic champion Nathan Adrian won in 48.31sec. Ryan Lochte, the eighth and last qualifier for the final, was second in 48.96, touching just ahead of Jimmy Feigen (48.98). Conor Dwyer was fourth. The top four finishers earned berths on the US 4x100m freestyle relay at the Pan Pacific Championships in Australia.
The results from these championships and the PanPacs will determine the US team for the 2015 World Championships in Russia, a key meet in the build-up to the 2016 Olympics.
"It just kind of stinks that I missed the first wall," Phelps said, "but it's a part of racing."
The aquatics centre is an outdoor facility, and the night's lengthening shadows were a factor in his bad turn.
"Maybe he should have listened to me when I said, 'Everybody go there and do some turns on the turn wall' because it's hard to see at night," Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, said.
"(But) I think we both felt good because he actually swam well tonight. I thought he looked good going out."
Phelps' next event in the meet is perhaps his best one, the 100m butterfly. He needs to finish first or second in the race today to secure a spot on the team bound for Australia.
Phelps, who clocked four of the 10 fastest times in the history of the event, said: "I'm just trying to get a spot on the team and go from there."
Lochte, his long-time rival, insisted that Phelps' current struggles do not mean the 18-time Olympic champion is no longer a threat. He pointed out: "Things happen. He is going to fix it and make sure it never happens again."
It is this faith in Phelps' ability that has also seen Aqua Sphere team up with the swimmer to develop a line of competitive swimming equipment.
Earlier this week, the company, which designs and manufactures swimwear, wetsuits, eyewear and accessories for triathletes, open-water, and fitness swimmers, announced that Phelps and Bowman had signed on to help it develop new products.
Phelps said he expects to be competing in a new suit made by Aqua Sphere in January.
"They've gone through all the (world swimming body) Fina approvals and we're just trying to work on some small things and some sizing things that we found last week when we were working together," he said.
"Bob and I really have never had the joint partnership (with previous sponsor Speedo) and being able to have so much input and give so much feedback on some of the small things... and that is something that excites me."