- Michael Phelps couldn't hear it because he had his iPhone ear buds tucked in, but when he walked into the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center on Friday night for the 200-meter freestyle final, AC/DC's "Back in Black" was blaring over the loudspeakers.
Though perhaps a bit cliche, it was still a mildly clever choice by the organizers of the Charlotte UltraSwim. Phelps was, after all, officially back, returning to competition for the first time since the Beijing Olympics. And he was wearing a black Speedo swimsuit.
But in a way, he was also playing the role of the anti-hero, having just completed a three-month suspension after he was photographed with a marijuana bong. The Golden Boy image, somewhat appropriately, has been retired and replaced by someone with a bit more of an edge.
The dominant swimmer, however, hasn't gone anywhere.
Phelps won both his events Friday night, the 200-meter freestyle and the 100-meter butterfly. But more impressive was how easily he won, and how fast he went doing it. His time in the 200 freestyle - 1 minute, 46.02 seconds - was a good two seconds faster than he thought he might swim.
His 100-meter butterfly time, 51.72, was equally impressive considering he has hardly worked on the butterfly in the two months he has been training and it came 20 minutes after his first final.
"I was really happy with today," Phelps said.
Lastly, the 23-year-old clearly enjoyed the opportunity to answer boring swimming questions again. All the discussion of "youthful mistakes" and "inappropriate behavior" was, he hoped, now behind him. He didn't even bother to deny it when a reporter asked him whether he had been a little nervous before the race.
"When I woke up from my nap, I felt kind of weird," Phelps said. "I don't know what it was. I feel like there are more cameras here tonight than I saw the whole time I was in Beijing. It didn't matter how I felt, though. I was just excited to race. I still have that drive and that passion to race."
Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach, looked almost a little surprised when he saw Phelps' times. Phelps had been joking with Jon Urbanchek, one of his former coaches with Club Wolverine, that his goal was to get within 10 seconds of his 200-meter freestyle world record in the preliminaries and five seconds in the finals. His finals time was only three seconds off the 1:42.96 he swam in Beijing, somewhat jaw-dropping considering Phelps didn't shave before the race and was wearing an old Speedo suit without the latest technology.
"I'm very pleased," Bowman said. "I'd say he's well ahead of schedule. If he could drop a couple seconds off that this summer, I'd be really happy."
It was a little surreal, though, to watch the most decorated Olympian in history move around the tiny Mecklenburg Aquatic Center, weaving through teenagers who couldn't resist whipping out camera phones to snap pictures of him. Media lurked behind the ropes, studying his every muscle twitch in search of larger meanings.
Phelps did his best to focus on his pre-race routine, the one he has used for nearly 10 years. In the morning, it began the way it always does. He wiped down his starting block with a towel. He stretched his right leg, then his left. He jiggled his triceps. He climbed onto the block, swung his arms across his body twice.
But as the building grew quiet, Phelps did something he hasn't done before a race in years, maybe ever. He laughed.
"There was a hole in the top part of my suit," Phelps said. "I was just hoping it wasn't going to rip when I bent down at the start."
The suit didn't rip, he managed to compose himself before diving into the water, and he didn't seem bothered at all when he finished third in both his preliminary races. He has learned, over the years, when to turn it on and when to cruise.
In his 200-free final, he even switched to his new sprinting stroke for the last 15 meters, a movement that requires a straighter arm technique and a faster tempo. It's one used by world-record holder Fred Bousquet, as well as Alain Bernard and Eamon Sullivan, three of the fastest sprinters in the world.
"That was a little tiny preview for tomorrow," Phelps said, referring to the 50-meter freestyle. "I said to Bob, maybe I'll try that for the last 15 meters. That's the new stroke. It wasn't bad. I was able to accelerate into the finish."
Towson's Katie Hoff, who also swims for North Baltimore Aquatic Club, was third in the women's 200-meter freestyle Friday.
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