IRVINE, Calif. — Michael Phelps has passed so many tests in his swimming career that it's easy to assume he'll always surmount the next one.
But he faced an unfamiliar predicament Friday, trying to overcome a clumsy start to the Phillips 66 National Championships amid questions about the progress of his 4-month-old comeback.
As it turned out, Phelps answered the way he always has, by swimming really, really fast — the fastest anyone in the world has swum the 100-meter butterfly in 2014. He just didn't do it in the evening final, swimming 0.13 of a second slower than he did in morning qualifying and finishing second to Tom Shields.
With his conditioning still a work in progress after a 20-month retirement, this version of Phelps might not be capable of his former multi-event dominance. He has also struggled to repeat strong morning performances in his evening races.
Phelps said he's simply not in shape to enter finals with his accustomed confidence. “I need more training, I need more endurance and I need more comfort with my stroke,” he said. “I just felt out of it, not my normal self in a final.”
Longtime coach Bob Bowman said Phelps looked nervous and attributed it to the record-setting Olympian's relative lack of preparation. “He knows what he's done to get here, and it ain't what he used to do to get here,” Bowman said.
His competitiveness, however, remains intact. “I cannot stand to lose,” Phelps said. “This will definitely motivate me.”
As the second-place finisher, Phelps will likely still qualify for the U.S. team at Pan Pacific and World Championships. But it wasn't the result he wanted in his signature race.
His evening time of 51.30 seconds was still fourth best in the world this year, so it's not as if Phelps is far off his form. Bowman said he expects a better performance in Australia in two weeks.
“He's gotten better every day,” he said.
As the second-place finisher, Phelps will likely still qualify for the U.S. team at the Pan Pacific and World Championships. But it wasn't the result he wanted in his signature race.
The 100-meter butterfly always shaped up as Phelps' most important race at the nationals. It's the only event he's swum at each stop of his comeback tour and the one in which he's come closest to his old form.
The race gained extra urgency when Phelps flubbed his turn in the 100-meter freestyle final Wednesday and thus failed to secure even a relay spot on the U.S. team for the Pan Pacific Championships later this month and world championships next year.
Phelps acknowledged his frustration with his amateurish mistake. But if he felt any extra pressure to rebound from his unaccustomed seventh-place finish, he didn't show it on his day off Thursday. Cloaked in a baggy white hoodie and sporting a bright-red Under Armour backpack, he chatted amiably with fellow swimmers and shouted encouragement as he watched teammates from the North Baltimore Aquatic Club race.
“I think he knows the deal. He knows what he needs to do,” Bowman said Friday morning. “But I didn't sense that he was any different.”
Phelps didn't waste time flagellating himself over the missed turn.
“He just kind of takes it for what it is,” Bowman said. “Which is the way you should do it. He learned from it. He'll probably never do it again. But what can you do about it after it's over, right?”
Perhaps pressure is an irrelevant concept for an athlete who's won the vast majority of the high-profile races he's ever swum. Certainly, Phelps had to be happy that his shot at redemption came in the butterfly, a stroke that's been his security blanket since he was a teenager.
“This year, this had been my event, the event I love swimming the most,” Phelps said.
Already, he'd swum what was then the second fastest time of 2014 at last month's Bulldog Slam in Georgia. And he entered Friday's race as a clear favorite, which he won't be in the 100-meter backstroke today or the 200-meter individual medley Sunday.
Phelps faced no simple task Friday morning as he watched fellow contenders Tim Phillips and Shields post blistering times in earlier qualifying heats. He said he and friendly rival Ryan Lochte turned to each other during those swims and said, “Can't we just have an easy morning?”
But Phelps responded with a swim Bowman called “by far” the best of his comeback. That set up another question: Could Phelps produce two excellent races in one day?
He did it routinely before his 20-month retirement but couldn't in the 100-meter freestyle Wednesday. Given his lighter training regimen — about one-third what he did at his peak, according to Bowman — stamina is a greater concern for the record-setting Olympian.
Phelps said he wanted to prove he could come back strong at night and dismissed any suggestion that he had reasserted his old dominance with one strong qualifying swim.
“I think I have to prove some things in that event first,” Phelps said, looking ahead to the final.
Bowman acknowledged the 200 butterfly was Phelps' most likely route to secure a spot for the Pan Pacific and world championships.
“I mean, he can do it in the others,” Bowman said. “But this would definitely be the one where we could just have more fun.”
In other action at the nationals, Phelps' NBAC teammate Chase Kalisz finished second in the 400-meter individual medley after a fierce battle with top qualifier Tyler Clary.
Kalisz, a Bel Air native, is like a little brother to Phelps and hopes to become the best in the world at a race Phelps once owned. He won a silver medal in the 400IM at the world championships last year and still has plenty of room for improvement, Bowman said.
But Clary was better Friday, pulling away in the last 100 meters after he and Kalisz were nearly even at the 300-meter turn. Kalisz is still likely to make the team for the Pan Pacific and world championships, though he didn't secure an automatic spot.
“I don't know if ‘rivalry' is the right word,” Clary said of his relationship with Kalisz. “He and I are good friends. He's a great talent. This is just how it shook out tonight.”