Michael Phelps has been out of the water for most of the past 18 months, but he made another splash on Friday night in Charlotte.
Phelps won for the first time since he came out of retirement in April, taking the 100 butterfly. And just as impressively, Phelps put his game face back on. Despite the win, Phelps was obviously irritated with himself for not swimming any faster in his second meet back than he did in his first.
“It’s respectable, I’ll say that,” Phelps said of his victory. His time of 52.13 seconds was exactly the same as the time he posted in the 100 butterfly last month in Mesa, Ariz. – but he had finished second in that earlier race to Ryan Lochte.
Said Phelps, who swam Friday’s race with a three-week beard: “I would have liked to have been faster than I was in Mesa. ... But it’s nice seeing ‘first place’ next to your name. That’s my first win since I came back. Hopefully we can get a string of those in a row.”
The only downer about the event was that the sellout crowd at Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center didn’t get to see Lochte and Phelps renew their decade-long rivalry. While Lochte edged Phelps in April, he couldn’t compete this time because of a lingering knee injury. Phelps missed his friend and rival.
“It’s good to have someone like that to race,” Phelps said of Lochte. “He and I hate to lose to each other, and we do tend to push each other to the max.”
Lochte watched the race in person – he wore a brace on his injured left knee – and said it was difficult to not be able to swim against Phelps. Lochte is training but doctors have told him not to race until later this summer.
“I just miss racing,” Lochte said. “It stinks. ... But hopefully I’m taking this meet as more fuel for the fire. This was going to be my first home meet now that I’m here living in Charlotte, but better safe than sorry. And not many people are really going to remember this meet... They’re going to remember Rio (site of the 2016 Olympics, and Lochte’s ultimate goal).”
The 100 butterfly was ultimately the only final in which Phelps competed in Charlotte. Although the meet continues until Sunday, he is taking baby steps in this comeback, and so he is already done with his meet.
Phelps swam in two events at the Charlotte Grand Prix – the other was the 200 freestyle. Phelps finished ninth in the preliminaries of the 200 free Friday morning, which did not qualify him for the “A” final in an event in which he holds the American record. He could have still swum in the “B” final, but could have not improved his standing. He chose instead to scratch out of that race and concentrate on the 100 butterfly.
Phelps qualified second in the morning in the 100 butterfly – an event in which he still holds the world record. Pavel Sankovich of Belarus finished first in the preliminaries.
But Phelps reversed that outcome when it counted, leading wire to wire in the night race before the standing-room-only crowd of about 1,500.
“It’s still not a great time,” Phelps grumped.
Sankovich was second and Joseph Schooling was third. SwimMAC’s Tim Phillips finished fifth.
In other action at the pool Friday night:
• Tyler Clary, who recently joined SwimMAC and also has a dream of eventually becoming a NASCAR racer, finished second in the men’s 400 individual medley. Clary will spend some of Saturday shadowing six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, an avid swimmer whom Clary has gotten to know at the pool.
• SwimMAC’s Kathleen Baker, who is 17 and one of the most sought-after college recruits in the country, finished third in the 50 backstroke and fourth in the 200 freestyle.
• SwimMAC’s Micah Lawrence finished second in the 100 breaststroke to American Jessica Hardy.
• Hungary’s Katina Hosszu won the women’s 200 freestyle over American Allison Schmitt, who was second.
• In the men’s 200 free, 2012 Olympian Conor Dwyer edged another Olympian, Matt McLean, in an all-American 1-2 finish. Raleigh product Charlie Houchin, also a 2012 Olympian, was 10th.
• ) Hungary’s Katina Hosszu won two events – both the women’s 200 freestyle and the women’s 400 individual medley.