Today at a swim meet in Mesa, Arizona, Michael Phelps swam his first race since the 2012 Olympics in London. The goal was to “test the waters a little bit and see how it goes,” his longtime coach Bob Bowman told the AP on April 14.
The results are in, and it went swimmingly.
The 22-time Olympic medalist beat rival Ryan Lochte by a tenth of a second in the preliminary round of the 100-meter butterfly. Phelps’ 52.84 seeded him first going into the finals heat, but Lochte bested Phelps for the win with a 51.93, followed by Phelps' second-place 52.13.
Phelps was expected to race the 100-meter freestyle and 100-meter butterfly events, but announced at a press conference before the meet that he would scratch the 100 free, without further explanation.
When pressed about the motivation for his return, Phelps said, “I’m doing this because I want to. I want to be back in the water…I’m having fun.” He also credited a love of competition, and a desire to get back into pro form.
“When he first came back, he was so out of shape,” Bowman said to laughter from the press-conference crowd. “So it took a while to say, ‘OK, he can do this in public for somebody.’”
Phelps said he spent his time off traveling, golfing, and putting on more than 30 pounds; he peaked at 225 after racing in London at 187. Now at 194 with a podium finish under his suit, it seems Phelps is back, just like the popular hashtag proclaims.
But Phelps hasn’t announced that he’s aiming for the 2016 Olympics. Even if he did, he won’t get an automatic in. “Should Phelps’ comeback journey lead to the Olympic Trials, he’ll have to re-qualify for the Olympics,” USA Swimming’s Mike Gustafson writes. “There are fast swimmers on the circuit right now. They’ll be faster in 2016. Phelps knows this, Bowman knows this, but many swim fans don’t.”
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.”
“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.
“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.”
“I was a tomboy, a serious tomboy,” writes Dara Torres in her 2009 memoir Age is Just a Number. “Even as a little kid at El Rodeo Elementary School in Beverly Hills, fancy Los Angeles culture didn’t suit me all that well … my main concerns were sports and winning. I wanted to get picked first for the team, any team, and I usually was.”
We all know what happened next. Torres went on to become a 12-time Olympic medalist—the first and only American swimmer to compete in five Olympic Games (1984, 1988, 1992, 2000, 2008). She medaled at all five Olympiads, most recently in Beijing at age 41.
Despite having "no interest in dresses, dolls, hopscotch, or other stereotypically girly things," Torres has fond memories of growing up in Beverly Hills during the 1970s and ’80s. After all, that's where she learned to swim, in the pool at her mother's house, and later at the Beverly Hills Y and Tandem Swim Club of Culver City.
Although Torres says there’s “not much peeps don’t know about Cali,” she took the time to share a few of her favorite places with Outside.
Describe Beverly Hills.
90210! Need I say more? When I grew up there, it was a beautiful area and very peaceful. The foliage was spectacular. California was alive—the Olympics, the Dodgers, the Lakers. I feel very fortunate. I also made many great friendships that have lasted my entire life.
Best time of year to visit?
I love the fall because it's cool during the night and warm during the day
Favorite place to get outside?
I enjoyed Big Bear and Mammoth; completely different scenery than being in town.
Back then a favorite was Trader Vic's—Polynesian Food and fun people watching.
The Hollywood sign
Best place to stay?
I love the Fairmont in Santa Monica, which is near the Third Street shops and across the street from the beach.
Beverly Hills is about 12 miles north of Los Angeles International Airport, 300 miles south of Mammoth Lakes, and 100 miles west of Big Bear Lake.
Christmas Day, 2006, a healthy six-year-old boy swimming in an indoor pool in Nebraska starts coughing and struggling to breathe. His parents take him out of the water and the coughing fit continues. Then he begins vomiting. Five hours go by and his condition deteriorates.
Barking with every cough and choking with each breath, the boy is rushed to the emergency room where his condition is finally stabilized, after a dexamethasone injection, a corticosteroid, and three doses of racemic epinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline). The attending physician records chlorine irritation as the cause of illness.
Over the last decades, a growing body of scientific research suggests that peeing in the pool is not as harmless as we once thought. A soon-to-be-published study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology builds on prior research to show that the binding of chlorine and uric acid, a chemical introduced into pools almost entirely from urine, can create two potentially harmful chemicals, cyanogen chloride and nitrogen trichloramine, says study co-author Ernest Blatchley, a professor at Purdue University. These chemicals can then enter the air inside the swimming pool through evaporation.
Used as a chemical weapons sporadically during WWI, cyanogen chloride interferes with the body's ability to use oxygen and can harm the central nervous system, lungs, and heart. Trichloramine is associated with asthma-like symptoms, and abundant levels of the chemical have been linked with swimming pool public health outbreaks, such as the one that affected 665 people at an indoor waterpark in 2007.
The relationships between disinfection by-products and health problems commonly associated with swimmers, lifeguards, and pool staff, remains unclear. But breathing in air at an indoor pool puts employees at "an excess risk for respiratory symptoms indicative of asthma" according to one European study. Another study from 1994 found chloroform in the blood of competitive swimmers who frequented an indoor pool, (but not in outdoor pool swimmers). In the bloodstream, chloroform can damage your liver and kidneys over a long period of exposure.
So should you stop going to the pool? No, says Michele Hlavsa, the Chief of the Center for Disease Control's Healthy Swimming Program. The health benefits still outweigh the possible dangers. But be wary of indoor pools that don't look well maintained. "A good, healthy pool doesn't smell at all." Hlavsa says.
Without proper maintenance or effective ventilation systems, these hazardous gases will build-up. So look for indoor pools with open access—through windows and doors—to the oudoors and that use fans to boost airflow over the pool’s surface. And don’t underestimate the importance of showering before you enter the pool and actually ignoring the impulse to pee. As Blatchley and his co-authors write, it is after all "a voluntary action for most swimmers."