It's not the Olympics or world championships, but Michael Phelps would like to regain his winning form against world-class competition, and he'll have that chance this week in Australia at the Pan Pacific Championships.
The meet is the most significant Phelps will swim between now and next summer's world championships in Kazan, Russia. The 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro loom after that, though Phelps has not publicly committed to extending his comeback that long.
Phelps assured reporters in swimming-mad Australia that he still hates to lose, though he said he's building himself up slowly as he approaches his first international meet since the 2012 Olympics.
"It's still the same with anything I want to do," he told reporters in Brisbane as he readied for the competition, which begins Thursday. "But it's going to take a little time for me to get back. We're doing it slowly."
The meet will bring together the best swimmers from the United States, Australia, Japan, Canada and South Africa (though Phelps' rival Chad le Clos won't be there), among others. A number of Phelps' North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammates, including Conor Dwyer, Chase Kalisz and Matt McLean, Becca Mann and Cierra Runge, will also compete in Australia.
The time in Gold Coast runs 14 hours ahead, so finals will begin at 5 a.m. Eastern. Phelps is scheduled to swim all four days of the meet. NBC will broadcast taped highlights on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
With no wins in four races at the Phillips 66 National Championships earlier this month, Phelps did not live up to his own lofty expectations. The Rodgers Forge native acknowledged that he didn't feel his usual confidence going into evening finals and blamed the relatively light training schedule he had adopted since ending his 20-month retirement from the sport.
Phelps vowed to work harder going forward, saying his aversion to losing is more powerful than his desire to take it easy. "I have no choice," he said after his last race of nationals.
With less than two weeks between that swim and the beginning of the Pan Pacific Championships, his promised transformation will likely have to wait.
Nevertheless, Phelps expected to swim better in Australia, where he's entered in five individual events — the 100- and 200-meter freestyle, the 100-meter butterfly, the 100-meter backstroke and the 200-meter individual medley. Phelps could still scratch from one or more of those races as the four-day meet unfolds.
It's not as if his performance at nationals was devoid of upside. He swam the fastest time of 2014 in the 100-meter butterfly during morning qualifying and is probably a co-favorite for that event in Australia along with Tom Shields, who narrowly beat him at nationals.
Phelps was also relatively happy with his second-place finish in the 200 IM, where he posted the third fastest time in the world this year.
He said he'll take just as much motivation, maybe more, from his seventh-place finish in the 100 freestyle and the 100 backstroke. Those races gave Phelps a realistic picture of where he stands, and he knows he must grind out more practice hours to accumulate the victories he still covets. Just as importantly, he came to that conclusion on his own, not because of prodding from longtime coach Bob Bowman.
"That's kind of what I've learned in this whole process over the last year and a half," he said at the end of nationals. "I'm doing it for myself, and I'm going to have to work because I want to. Not because Bob wants me to or my mom wants me to or anybody else wants me to. I'm going to have to do it because I want to. That's the reason I'm here, and that's the reason I'm swimming again."
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