SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Having established himself as the shadow world champion in three events, Michael Phelps pondered the last time he felt this good.
He quickly pointed to the year leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where he broke one of the greatest records in sports.
It looks as if he’s headed for another massive medal haul in Rio.
Phelps made it 3 for 3 at the U.S. national championships Sunday night, winning the 200-meter individual medley with yet another time that would have been good enough for a world title if he had been allowed to compete at the biggest meet outside the Olympics.
On the heels of brilliant performances in the 100 and 200 butterfly, Phelps set himself up as the favorite in all three races looking toward Rio.
“I’m very happy where I am right now,” he said. “This is a great foundation. This is a place we really haven’t been in a long time leading up to an Olympics. I definitely wasn’t like this leading up to 2012. It’s probably been since 2007 that it’s been like this. I can sit here and argue with you that 2007 is probably the best year of my career. It’s probably the last time I had three events like this back to back to back.”
Phelps was under world-record pace through the first three laps of the medley — fly, backstroke, breaststroke — but he struggled a bit on the freestyle leg to touch in 1 minute, 54.75 seconds — 0.75 off the mark set in 2011 by American rival Ryan Lochte.
Still, it was more than second faster than Lochte’s winning time of 1:55.81 at the world championships, held in Kazan, Russia, over the past two weeks.
Phelps, of course, wasn’t allowed to compete at worlds this year.
He was kicked off the U.S. team after his second drunken-driving arrest last September, leading Phelps to swear off alcohol and take a good, hard look at himself during six weeks of inpatient therapy in Arizona. He emerged with what he said was a new outlook on life and a commitment to put in the sort of training that marked the peak of his career, when he was driven to break Mark Spitz’s 36-year-old Olympic record by winning eight gold medals in Beijing.
With an embarrassing string of problems outside the pool, Phelps still must prove to his skeptics that he’s a changed man.
There are no longer any doubts about what he can do in the water at age 30.
“I’m pumped,” he said. “Being able to do that right now, I’m very, very pleased. It’s something great to build from.”
In the two butterfly events, Phelps put up the fastest times since high-tech bodysuits were banned after the 2009 worlds. In the 200 IM, he went faster than anyone has gone since his gold medal-winning time of 1:54.27 at the London Olympics three years ago.
He managed to go fast in sweltering Texas even though most of the top swimmers were competing halfway around the world in Russia. Phelps was largely racing the clock in San Antonio, without anyone to seriously challenge him.
That didn’t matter. He met his goal of going faster than the world champion in all three events.
Phelps’ longtime coach, Bob Bowman, said the swimmer “greatly exceeded” his expectations.
“We’re ahead of schedule,” Bowman said. “Just seeing him put up those kind of times, it probably does change what I thought might be possible in a year. I thought he could get near his top level. I wasn’t sure it would happen this quickly.”
Already the most decorated athlete in Olympic history with 18 golds and 22 medals overall, Phelps will surely compete in the same three individual events at Rio that he dominated in San Antonio, and it seems highly likely he’ll be on all three U.S. relay teams after a disappointing performance by the Americans in Kazan.
The U.S. men didn’t even qualify for the final of the 400 free relay at worlds, and they settled for silver in the 800 free relay. A gold medal Sunday in the 400 medley relay did little to ease the sting.
Phelps’ celebration after the 200 IM was more muted than the two previous nights, though he did climb on top of the lane rope and thrust both arms skyward. After he climbed from the pool, he paused to watch a replay of the race on the video board, trying to figure out how to go even faster.
“I was more ticked off when I saw I was under record pace at the 150,” Phelps said. “That kind of bothered me.”
Phelps has one more event in San Antonio: the 200 breaststroke on Monday. But that’s not one of his better events, and he entered it merely to get in a little more work on the final day of nationals.
Actually, his work is done.