IRVINE, Calif. — If this year's Phillips 66 National Championships hold any enduring place in Michael Phelps' mind, he might remember them as a needed, albeit painful, slug of reality.
Until the past week, Phelps had treated his four-month comeback as something of a lark, working out when he wished and recapturing his past brilliance in fleeting bursts. He'd said he was happy simply getting back in the pool.
But in truth, Phelps' love of swimming and his fierce need for victory always have been inextricably linked. And at the nationals, he learned his half-in approach isn't good enough to fend off daily competition from this country's best.
Phelps seemed disgusted with his inability to put together two good swims in a day, something he once did routinely. "I hate this," he mumbled after one disappointing effort.
But he did not pull away from his comeback in a huff. Instead, Phelps took his medicine — seventh in the 100-meter freestyle, second in the 100-meter butterfly, sixth in the 100-meter backstroke, second in Sunday's 200-meter individual medley — and vowed to throw himself back into the daily grind that lies at the heart of high-level swimming.
"When there are workouts, I need to be at every one," he said. "That's the bottom line."
This had to delight longtime coach Bob Bowman, who has opted not to push Phelps and has instead let his star come to the lesson on his own.
"It's the truth," Bowman said. "We had some fun with it, did pretty well. Now he's got to decide if he wants to do it or if he wants to have fun with it. Because if you have fun with it, you get to be sixth in the 100 back. If you want to really work at it, you can do something better."
Phelps has tried to have it both ways, training one-third as much but still hoping to dominate select races. He's gifted enough that he can nearly pull it off. Nearly.
Over the last week, Phelps seemed to grasp that the equation might not work against the best competition. It's a natural realization for him as he pursues his comeback, said Frank Busch, director of the national team for USA Swimming.
"Michael only knows one thing, and that's to compete at the highest level. He's done that his entire career. And the only way he'll continue with this comeback … is if he continues to progress," Busch said. "I think we've seen tremendous progress in a short period of time. He'd be the first to admit … this has not been the greatest training in terms of the amount of time or the hours he's put in. Michael will continue to get better. There's no question of that. He is nowhere near being finished with his career."
During his absolute prime, between 2003 and 2008, Phelps carried a robust athletic ego into all of his major races. This wasn't empty braggadocio. Phelps simply knew that, between his immense talent and the practice grind he'd gone through with Bowman, he was the best.
Cracks appeared in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, with Phelps chafing at Bowman's demands and then paying for his lack of training with a fourth-place finish in the 400-meter individual medley in London. But he still won four gold medals in London and retired in glory.
Four months into his comeback, Phelps acknowledges his confidence is shaky when he takes the block for a final. He looks like the same old guy, windmilling his arms across his long blade of a torso. But he knows his speed isn't built on the same foundation of hard training as in his best days.
"It's probably just because I'm not used to being in this kind of shape or this kind of feeling going into a meet," he said. "Normally, I can look back and say I've done all the training. I've done everything I needed to do to prepare myself. But with having a year and a half off and maybe not going as hard as I should've at some of the parts during the year, it shows. And that's something I understand."
Phelps has set such high standards that it's easy to overstate his struggles. After all, he did swim the fastest 100 butterfly this year on Friday morning, a faster swim than the one that won him a gold medal in London. And he followed with the third-fastest time in the world, 1 minute, 56.55 seconds, in the 200-meter IM.
This isn't Muhammad Ali eating punches against Larry Holmes or Willie Mays stumbling across the outfield for the New York Mets. Perhaps the better comparison is the aged version of Phelps' boyhood idol, Michael Jordan — capable of a masterpiece on any given night but unable to summon his former brilliance on demand.
The loss that will stick in his craw the most came in the 100-meter butterfly final, where Tom Shields touched one-tenth of a second ahead of him. But Phelps said he needs images like that in his head as he pushes forward.
"Things like this help me and motivate me more than anything else," he said. "This will definitely be something that sticks with me over the next year, hopefully leading up to world championships."
His frustration briefly manifested as petulance, when he was asked how it felt to be barely out-touched by Shields after years on the other side of such close finishes.
"It's better to be on the losing side at a meet like this than at a bigger meet," he said. "That's really all I can say. I've been able to be there at the right time at the right meets. I'd rather lose a national championship and win an Olympics or world championship medal than worry about these."
Phelps always has relied on slights and negative emotion to push him to greater heights. It remains to be seen if he can find the formula once more.
He'll be in Australia in two weeks for the Pan Pacific Championships, where he'll remain one of the favorites in the 100-meter butterfly. After that, if true to his word, he'll be back to work at the Meadowbrook Aquatic Center in Mount Washington.
On Saturday night, Phelps watched 17-year-old Katie Ledecky set a new world record and cement her status as the best female freestyler in the world from 200 to 1500 meters.
"For somebody as talented as she is, she throws it on the line," he said. "She puts it out there. It's good seeing somebody who's hungry, who wants it like her. And she does the work."
It felt as if he'd glimpsed a ghost of his younger self. And he wanted the feeling back.
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