But now, almost two years after retiring from swimming and two
months shy of his 29th birthday, the American is plunging into
uncharted waters by attempting a comeback where the risk-reward
ratio is heavily stacked against him.
If all goes well, Phelps could be back on the winner's podium at
Rio, although he insists he is still undecided about whether he
wants to go to the 2016 Olympics.
If it goes wrong, he will join a long list of great athletes who
were lured back to competition but failed to reproduce the form that
took them to the top of their chosen sports.
His legacy is already assured. Nothing he does in the future will
take away from what he did in the past but as Muhammad Ali, Mark
Spitz, Michael Jordan, Bjorn Borg and Michael Schumacher all
discovered, it can still become a permanent footnote.
Phelps has not yet given a full explanation for his decision to come
back or his plans for the future. That will come on Wednesday when
he and longtime coach Bob Bowman face the media before the April
24-26 Grand Prix meet in Mesa, Arizona, where he will make his
A global sporting icon, Phelps has already amassed a fortune through
his endorsements, so money is unlikely to be the driving motivation
to get him back in the pool for the grueling training required to be
an Olympic swimmer.
Nor is he likely to top his past achievements so anything he does is
likely to be less than before. He won six gold medals at Athens in
2004 and an unprecedented eight at Beijing in 2008 when he was at
his absolute peak.
At the 2012 London Games he won four gold and by the law of
diminishing returns would be hard-pressed to match that in Rio, when
he will be 31, past the age when most elite swimmers have hung up
their goggles but not too old to be totally discounted.
At the Athens Olympics, Inge de Bruijn of the Netherlands won the
women's 50 meters freestyle gold medal days before her 31st
Four years later in Beijing, Jason Lezak teamed up with Phelps to
win gold in the 4x100m freestyle relay at 32 while Dara Torres won
three silvers in the Chinese capital at age 41.
For Phelps, his biggest asset is his physique and perfect technique.
He stands 1.93m (6ft 4in) tall but has a wingspan of 2.01m (6ft 7in)
giving him greater pulling power in the water.
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But the natural evolution of swimming looms as his biggest obstacle.
Even if he can match his best times, his younger opponents are
getting faster all the time.
This week's meet will offer few real clues to what Phelps might do
in Rio, if he were to go that far. He has deliberately picked a
relatively light program of three races — 100m freestyle, 100m
butterfly and 50m freestyle.
"It's just a start," Bowman told Reuters last week.
The first big test for Phelps will come in August when the U.S.
national championships, which will double as the trials for next
year's world championships in Russia, are held in California.
Then in mid-2016, the U.S. Olympic trials will take place in Omaha,
Phelps only needs to finish in the top six in either the 100m or
200m freestyle at the 2016 U.S. Olympic trials to make the relay
team and if he did, he would have a realistic chance of adding to
his collection of Olympic medals.
For mere mortals, that would be a lifelong achievement but for
Phelps, he is likely to want to swim at least one individual event,
possibly the 100m butterfly, which would also secure him a place on
the medley relay and a chance at four golds in Rio.
(Reporting by Julian Linden in New York;
editing by Frank Pingue)
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