SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Michael Phelps held up one finger, leaving no doubt he’s No. 1.
Then he pounded the water defiantly — first with one hand, then with both.
Yep, he’s back.
Removing any uncertainty about how ready he’ll be for the Rio Olympics, Phelps turned in his fastest time in the 200-meter butterfly since setting the world record in a high-tech suit six years ago.
Phelps’ stunner — 1 minute, 52.94 seconds at the U.S. national championships Friday night — came after months of lackluster performances and serious problems away from the pool.
“This next year is going to be pretty damn fun,” said Phelps, who unleashed one of the biggest celebrations of his career when he saw the time.
It would have been good enough for gold at the 2012 London Olympics, where he finished second behind Chad le Clos’ time of 1:52.96. It would have been good enough to win at this year’s world championships in Kazan, Russia, where Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh took the title in 1:53.48.
“I think it just shows you anything is possible if you want something bad enough,” Phelps said. “I can do whatever I put my mind to.”
No question about that.
Not after a performance that no one saw coming — not even his longtime coach, Bob Bowman.
“That was one of his best swims,” Bowman said, high praise indeed considering Phelps is the most decorated athlete in Olympic history with 18 golds and 22 medals overall.
Phelps should have been in Kazan this week — he easily qualified for the U.S. team — but he lost his spot as part of his punishment for a second drunken-driving arrest last fall. So he came to San Antonio for what is essentially a junior-varsity meet for swimmers who didn’t earn a spot at the biggest swimming event outside the Olympics.
It was the middle of the night in Russia when he finished, but the time was sure to send plenty of ripples halfway around the world by Saturday morning.
“I wish I was there,” Phelps said, “but I’m glad I’m here.”
With the stands nearly full — despite another 100-degree day in south Texas — and fans packed around the railings at one end of the pool, Phelps seized the moment. He went out in 25.14 seconds, significantly faster than his opening pace in the morning preliminaries, and was clearly racing more than just the seven other swimmers in the “A’’ final.
He kept up the blistering pace right to the end, breaking 30 seconds on his final lap and touching the wall a full body-length ahead of runner-up Jack Conger (1:54.54).
“I had no clue,” Phelps said. “Going into the 100 wall, I said, ‘Please just make it feel this easy for one more 25.’ Then I would just go to my legs as much as I can the last 75. When I hit 150 wall, I was like, ‘I better get at least seven or eight kicks off this wall and just hammer it.’”
That he did.
It was Phelps’ best performance in one of his signature events since he set the world record of 1:51.51 at the 2009 world championships in Rome — a meet remembered for its assault on the record book with nearly everyone wearing rubberized suits that were soon banned by FINA for making a mockery of the sport.
This time, Phelps was wearing a black textile jammer with his “MP” logo on the right leg, one of the suits he helped design as part of a new sponsorship deal.
“I guess the suit is pretty good,” he quipped.
Before the race, Phelps wasn’t his usual stoic self. He actually smiled and joked around with the swimmer in the lane next to him, Pace Clark, who recently did some training with Phelps in the high altitude of Colorado and was given a couple of the new suits by him.
Clark decided to wear the suit at nationals, and both swimmers seemed amused to be in matching attire as they climbed on the blocks.
“I’m just so relaxed right now,” Phelps said. “I think that’s the big thing about me in my everyday life.”
Not so long ago, Phelps wasn’t in such a good place. After that second DUI arrest, he underwent six weeks of inpatient therapy in Arizona, a stint that gave him a chance to re-examine his entire life. He has enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous and vowed not to drink any alcohol at least through the Rio Olympics.
“I went through a lot,” he said, pausing to consider his words. “A lot.”
Once he completed therapy and had his legal issues resolved, Phelps threw himself totally into training. Bowman said the 30-year-old hasn’t missed a day of practice since returning to the pool, a level of dedication he hasn’t shown since the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where he broke Mark Spitz’s iconic record with eight gold medals.
Phelps arrived in San Antonio looking more muscular and defined than he has at perhaps anytime in his career.
That work paid off, showing Phelps is fully committed to his second Olympics farewell. He initially retired after the London Games, only to change his mind just over a year later.
There were some who doubted he could ever regain his dominating form.
Even Bowman was a bit skeptical.
“It’s been a long, hard road to get here,” Bowman said. “You never know if you’re going to get back to (this) level. That’s the real level.”
In other events Friday night, Olympic gold medalist Allison Schmitt bounced back from a disappointing sixth-place finish in the 400 freestyle to win the 200 free. Mazime Rooney took the men’s 200 free, Claire Adams captured the women’s 100 backstroke, and Japan’s Junya Koga claimed the men’s 100 back.