ANNAPOLIS, Dec. 12 — Michael Phelps didn’t have a fantastic time, either in the water or on the scoreboard, but he convinced himself he can try to regain his American record in the 400-yard individual medley — a mark he lost in the technical suit onslaught last spring — with a strong performance Saturday on the second day of a three-day holiday meet at the U.S. Naval Academy.
After Phelps touched the wall in his third race at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club Christmas Meet, his head spun first to the scoreboard, then to his coach, Bob Bowman, and both offered the encouraging feedback he hoped for in his return to an event he has both dreaded and dominated.
Phelps, the 14-time Olympic gold medal winner, finished in 3 minutes 42.53 seconds, nearly 11 seconds ahead of North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammate Drew Cosgarea, 17 (3:53.44). NBAC’s Brennan Morris, 19, who swam in the world championships in Rome this summer, finished in 3:54.78.
Though his time was more than six seconds slower than his ’06 personal best and 6.55 seconds behind the American record Tyler Clary set in the event last March at the NCAA championships, it would have given Phelps the gold medal at last weekend’s U.S. short-course (25-yard-pool) championships in Federal Way, Wash.
That was “great,” Bowman said. “He was three seconds faster than they went in nationals; it was the first one he did since Beijing; and he’s done absolutely no training for it.”
Over an hour later, Phelps finished first in the 100 backstroke, not one of his specialty events, in 46.73 seconds, more than a second off of his personal best of 45.50 and well off of Ryan Lochte’s American record of 44.60, but still a respectable time.
“That was just for fun,” Bowman said.
The 400 medley, however, was serious business. Though Phelps has rarely swum short-course yards since high school, he got very interested in reclaiming his American record in the medley after Clary of the University of Michigan set the current best of 3:35.98 last spring during a technical-suit dominated NCAA championships.
The NCAA and USA Swimming banned technical suits this year, and they will be banned internationally in January.
Phelps, 24, owns the 400 medley record in Olympic-distance, 50-meter pools, but his best time in short-course yards — the 3:36.26 he swam in 2006 — trails Clary by a half a second.
Both Phelps and Bowman said a bit of work on Phelps’s sluggish breaststroke and backstroke legs could produce a significant time drop in just a few months – and, perhaps, the American record, even without a technical suit.
“I think I could [break it] if I put my mind to it,” Phelps said.
But, he was asked, will he put his mind to it?
“I’d like to,” he said.
“I can get him in that range in no time,” Bowman said. “That time is really good.”
It did not come without considerable pain. After the race, Phelps’s back heaved and his mouth hung open, sucking in air. When he saw his sister Hillary after hauling himself out of the pool, he told her: “I haven’t done that since Beijing. Now I know why.”
Phelps, indeed, has refused to swim the distance in Olympic-distance pools since the 2008 Summer Games, saying he is weary of the taxing event and the training required to excel in it. Bowman, however, said it would be “my dream” for Phelps to take up the Olympic-distance 400 medley again, and Phelps said even his mother is urging him to do it.
“My mom wants me to come back for meters,” Phelps said. “Most of the time [I listen to her] but when it comes to that, I may have to rebel.”
As for the 400 medley in short-course yards, the race is on for that.
“I always felt like he could put up a time that nobody could beat,” Bowman said, “forever.”