Just before the 2012 Olympics, Michael Phelps told Anderson Cooper in a 60 Minutes interview, “Once I retire, I’m retitring. I’m done.” Phelps went on to win six medals in London, bringing his total medal count to 22, then promptly threw in his Speedo. Or so he said.
Today, Phelps’ longtime coach, Bob Bowman, announced that Phelps will compete at a swim meet in Mesa, Arizona on April 24-26. It will be the first time Phelps has competed since London. "I think he's just going to test the waters a little bit and see how it goes," Bowman told the Associated Press. "I wouldn't say it's a full-fledged comeback."
Bowman’s effort to lower our expectations didn’t work. There is nothing we’d like more than to see the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time return to the five-ringed stage. So we asked Stanford exercise physiologist, Anne Friedlander, what it will take for Phelps to kick ass in 2016, at the at the ripe old age of 31.
“The biggest thing he’s gonna have to think about is training smarter,” Friedlander says. Phelps famously swam 80,000-plus meters a week (that’s about 50 miles) leading into the 2008 Olympics. That extremely high-volume regimen may not work this time around. “He could need more recovery time,” Friedlander says.
As people age, their tissues become less resilient and more susceptible to damage. “The body was very forgiving when he was young; now he’s going to have to have a smarter training plan—decrease the volume a little bit and higher intensity with more recovery time.”
Watch the Power
“He may find that he doesn’t have quite the explosive power that he used to,” Friedlander says. As athletes age, they tend to lose some of their Type II, fast-twitch muscle fibers, and neurological signaling from the brain to the muscles slows down, though the difference in explosive power between the ages of 27 and 31 may be negligible.
In a sport where hundredths of seconds count, however, a minutely less explosive start off the blocks could knock a swimmer out of medal contention. The lineup Phelps is scheduled to swim in Arizona—the 50- and 100-meter free, and the 100 butterfly—suggests he’s testing out his speed rather than his endurance.
While it’d be easy to say swimmers, like runners, move on to longer distance events as they age, history says that’s just not true. Dara Torres became a worldwide celebrity when she competed in the 2012 Olympic Trials at the age of 45—in the 50 free. She finished fourth in the final heat.
In other sports, athletes with decades in the game have also managed to stay on top. Like Phelps, Brazilian soccer legend Pelé was a teen superstar. He was nearly 30 when he played in his fourth and final World Cup, the quadrennial international soccer championship. The plays he made during that game helped secure his team a victory, and are cited as some of his most famous. He was even named player of the tournament.
Olympic gold medalist, Andre Agassi, turned pro at 16. By the age of 25, he was ranked the number one tennis player in the world. At 32, he became the oldest player to rank second in the world. It wasn’t until he was 36 that extreme back pain forced him to retire.
It’s Going to Be Mental
“Experience really does play a role in this, knowing when to push, when to hold back, what to do in between races, things like that,” Friedlander says. “Understanding the competition, having been in those events before. Just being able to deal with the stress” could give him an edge younger, more resilient athletes don’t have—as long as he stays cool. “For him, a person who’s accomplished more than anyone else, is this gravy, or does it increase the pressure because expectations are so high? I don’t know, that’s in his own head.”
Ordinarily, pizza makes us think of a half-assed meal or an indulgent snack (either, according to how much you've had to drink, or how much you'd rather it be one over the other), but what if it were an ideal fuel for runners? Runner and writer Matt Fitzgerald has made it so. Granted, without grease on your fingertips and yeast in your stomach, you might not want to call it "pizza." But we see no great loss here.
Enter: the greaseless, yeastless Greek Tortilla Pizza—the runner's option, with a Greek tortilla in place of dough, whole grains in place of white flour, one day's serving of veggies piled on top for nutritional value, and the whole thing ready for consumption in one sitting so you don't have to think about portion control. Best of all, says nutrition expert Georgie Fear: the Greek Tortilla Pizza can still be a last-minute decision (so long as you have the ingredients). Preparing it takes only 15 minutes, about the same time it takes to deliver.
Great track runners don’t always make great marathoners, but on Sunday, 31-year-old Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele won the Paris Marathon in 2:05:03, which makes him one of the fastest first-time marathoners in history. Bekele is the world record holder at 5,000 (12:37) and 10,000 meters (26:17), and suddenly he looks like an odds-on contender to take a crack at the current world marathon record, 2:03:23, held by Kenya’s Wilson Kipsang.
Track fans have been speculating about Bekele’s move to the marathon for at least a decade, ever since he broke Haile Gebrselassie’s 5,000 and 10,000 world records, won his first of nine world and Olympic titles, and compelled Geb to move up to the marathon. After a few sluggish races, Geb eventually knocked almost a minute off the previous record and became the first man ever to run a marathon under 2:04. If Geb could do that, people wondered, what could Bekele do in the marathon?
Sunday’s race suggests that Kipsang better guard his mark carefully. On its face, a 2:05 marathon in this era isn’t that impressive: nine men ran faster last year alone. But Bekele is unlike today’s top marathoners, most of whom have come to the event without spending years honing their speed on the track. And track racing may be a slight disadvantage.
Recently, as marathon times have plummeted, some coaches have argued that prolonged shorter-distance racing forces runners to optimize fuel consumption for speed instead of efficiency, which is paramount in the marathon. Lots of fast runners don't make the transition well: Zersenay Tadese, the world record holder in the half-marathon, has never run a marathon under 2:10. Likewise, it took Deena Kastor—who holds the American women’s record at 2:19—six attempts to break 2:21. That trend holds true for plenty of other elites, too. (Next weekend in London, we'll see how well Mo Farah, the reigning Olympic and World champion at 5,000 and 10,000 meters, fares in his marathon debut. Unlike Bekele, Farah will test himself against both the distance and one of the best marathon fields ever assembled.)
So there was a risk that Bekele, who has spent 15 years training for 5,000 and 10,000 races, would struggle to run a fast marathon. And at age 31, with only a few top races to his name since 2009, it was possible that he simply never would. That’s no longer a concern. And given the course—compared to Berlin, Rotterdam, or London, Paris is somewhat hilly—and the lack of competition Bekele faced over the final 15 kilometers, there's room for him to go significantly faster. On the letsrun.com message boards, posters have been speculating that Bekele might soon become the first man to run under 2:03. The smart money is rarely on an aging runner with a history of injury problems, but after Paris, betting on a world record for Bekele by year’s end wouldn’t be stupid, either.
And if not in 2014, maybe next year. Last week, Bekele’s manager, Jos Hermens, told the New York Times that Bekele has recently been distracted by business projects in Addis Ababa. “He has to get his act together, and stay motivated and forget about business and run for five or six years,” Hermens said.
“Michigan is a beautiful place, it raised me well,” says snowboarder Danny Davis, who won the snowboard superpipe at this year's Winter X Games. Davis hails from Highland Township (population 19,202), less than an hour from Detroit. “It’s a funny place,” he says. “Classic Midwest: lots of Detroit Red Wings fans, dirt bikes, pond hockey, and a lot of horses and lakes.”
Why do you love Highland? I love Michigan, and I love the people there. I have lots of family there, and everyone is friendly. All the mountains have night riding, which makes for a lot of hours on my snowboard. There are also many lakes, which means lots of fishing. Of course it's good to have the Tigers and the Red Wings close-by, too.
What’s don’t most people know about Highland? Bob Seger is from our area, and I love that.
Best time of year to visit? Summertime. It’s all about boats, fishing, babes, and Tigers games in Detroit. Please go visit the Great Lakes and all they have to offer at some point in your life.
Favorite place to get outside? Our local hill, Alpine Valley, is ten minutes away and is where I grew up snowboarding. That place raised me. Alpine Valley has 306 feet vertical, and you can get in about 300 runs a day.
Best restaurant? Highland House; best breadsticks and Greek salads on the planet.