IRVINE, Calif. — As he moves forward with his comeback, Michael Phelps can't always measure his progress the way he used to: in victories.
Take the unusual position he found himself in Saturday at the Phillips 66 National Championships. The night before, he had lost by a whisker in the 100-meter butterfly, the race he has focused on most since coming out of retirement in April. Yet he had secured a place on the U.S. team for the Pan Pacific Championships this month in Australia.
Phelps hadn't fretted over making a national team since he was 15 and seeking a spot in the 2000 Olympics. So with that minor relief, he turned to the 100 backstroke, an event he hardly had swum in competition and one few expected him to win.
The star of the night was 17-year-old Bethesda resident Katie Ledecky, who set a world record in the 400-meter freestyle with a time of 3minutes, 58.86 seconds.
It wasn't clear whether Phelps swam the backstroke because he thought he could win, to hone it for the 200-meter individual medley or simply to amuse himself.
As he has all week, he swam slower in the evening than in the morning, finishing sixth and never threatening the lead.
After the race, he put the best face he could on his performances this week, saying the unusually poor results will push him to embrace his former work ethic.
“I hate this,” Phelps said after finishing in 53.95 seconds, 1.20 seconds slower than winner Matt Grevers. “Anything to be able to change this.”
His longtime coach, Bob Bowman, sounded pleased with what he saw in morning qualifying, even though Phelps lost his heat to Grevers, more of a backstroke specialist.
“The way he swam it today was the way he used to swim a lot of races when he was at his peak,” Bowman said. “He just went out pretty slow and came back fast, which means he's pretty confident. He didn't, like, spin his wheels and try to panic down there, like he did in the 100 fly, under pressure. So that's what I'm looking for. I'm looking for him to be relaxed, to have control of his stroke.”
Though Phelps never swam the backstroke as an individual event in the Olympics, it is by no means a weakness. He once held the third-fastest time in history in the 200 backstroke and won a silver medal in the event at the 2006 Pan Pacific Championships.
Last month, he beat rival Ryan Lochte in the 100-meter backstroke at the Bulldog Invitational. He posted the fourth-best qualifying time Saturday morning, improving on his Bulldog race by 0.12 of a second.
Phelps talked of Saturday's races as a fun experiment.
“I've never really been able to swim any backstroke before at an international meet or a big meet, just because the schedule always conflicts with my other races, so it was kind of a cool area and a cool spot in the meet where we were able to throw in a 100 back,” he said. “I swam a decent 100 back in Atlanta, so I don't know. Something we've never done. Why not try it now?”
That spoke to one aspect of Phelps' comeback — his desire to try programs different from those in his prime, when he maintained an unwavering focus on winning eight gold medals in one Olympics.
“Backstroke always hurts a lot more than any other stroke,” said Phelps, who will face Lochte in the 200 individual medley today, the final day of the championships. “It always destroys your legs, but it's interesting. It's more exciting for me having a different event and a fun event that I've never really had the opportunity to swim.”
As Phelps played with a new program, North Baltimore Aquatic club teammate and fellow Olympic gold medalist Allison Schmitt confronted her own athletic mortality after a break from competition.
Schmitt failed to qualify for the final in the 400 freestyle, an event in which she won a silver medal in London two years ago. She finished 18 seconds behind Ledecky to cap a meet in which she didn't make the final in any of her three events. That means she didn't qualify for the Pan Pacific or world championships, the two biggest meets before the 2016 Olympics.
Schmitt, 24, faces a difficult reality. Her events are packed with younger swimmers such as Ledecky and Missy Franklin, who are beating her by hefty margins.
Bowman said the realization has to be daunting, but added that he would urge Schmitt to retire if he didn't believe she could return to her 2012 form.
“She's not near that,” he said. “I think Allison knows she can do the things she wants to do. I think she can be as fast as she was before or faster.”
Schmitt said she's committed to becoming her old self by 2016. “I have 100 percent confidence I can,” she said. “I wouldn't be back swimming if I didn't. … The goal is two years from now, and there's going to be speed bumps along the way. This was one of them.”
Bowman said that like Phelps, Schmitt is undertrained compared with her rivals.
“She had her struggles emotionally last summer, and she took a break,” he said. “And then she kind of continued taking a break through December. So that’s where we are today. We’re having a life lesson about [consistency]. She’ll be fine. We just didn’t have enough time to pull it all together.”