MESA, ARIZ.— Michael Phelps did not forget how to win races in his 20 months away from competitive swimming.
In the first swim of his comeback at the Mesa Grand Prix, Phelps posted the fastest qualifying time in the 100-meter butterfly at 52.84 seconds.
"I was just so excited to swim," Phelps said. "I literally was just so excited to get in and to race. You're going to hear this word a lot, but it was fun."
His longtime rival, Ryan Lochte, finished just behind at 52.94 seconds. Both will swim in the butterfly final Thursday evening.
For a little perspective, Phelps won in 51.21 seconds at the 2012 Olympics and set the world record at 49.82 seconds in 2009. Japanese Olympian Takuro Fujii swam the fastest time in the world this year at 51.84 seconds. Phelps' chief butterfly rival from 2012, South African Chad le Clos, won in 51.06 seconds at last year's World Championships.
A festive cheer rose from the sellout crowd at the Skyline Aquatic Center as Phelps stepped to the starting block. He smiled in acknowledgement, then windmilled his arms in familiar fashion before bursting into the water. Just after the 50-meter turn, his blue and white North Baltimore Aquatic Club cap bobbed at the front of the pack.
"I could tell when he came in and I first saw him warm up that it was going to be good, that he was into it," said Bob Bowman, Phelps' longtime coach.
Phelps wouldn't say if he'd met his time goal.
"Obviously, I'm a very time-oriented person so there's always something my mind is set on," he said. "We'll see if it happens tonight."
He did clear one minor hurdle, establishing a time that would qualify him for U.S. Nationals in August. "Yes!" he said semi-sarcastically, when the subject arose. He added that he hadn't had to worry about a national qualifying time since he was 13.