In the vast scheme of Michael Phelps' career, few people are likely to remember the just-concluded Arena Pro Swim Series meet in Santa Clara, Calif. But in the limited context of Phelps' preparations for the 2016 Olympics, his performance this past weekend brought him a welcome jolt of confidence.
Phelps swam about as poorly as he ever has last month in Charlotte, where he failed to qualify for the "A" finals in three of five events. He knew the results didn't matter much in the big picture, but make no mistake, he was annoyed. He said his legs felt disconnected from his torso, and he admitted he wasn't sure when his form would come around.
Longtime coach Bob Bowman said Phelps' legs were likely dead because he has significantly ramped up his training this year. Bowman said he had no doubt his star pupil's toil would pay off, even if it cost him in the short term.
Well, Bowman knows Phelps pretty well after almost 20 years. The record-setting Olympian swam much better in Santa Clara, winning both the 200-meter butterfly and the 200-meter individual medley. His result in the 200 butterfly was particularly notable, because he shaved three seconds off his time from Charlotte.
When Phelps first came out of retirement last year, he said he didn't plan to swim the 200-meter butterfly, an event he once dominated. Even when I talked to him last month at an event for his foundation, he said he felt like he was carrying a piano on his back over the second 100 meters.
The next night, he won the 200 IM in 1 minute, 59.39 seconds, almost a second better than his time in Charlotte. Phelps also finished third in the 200-meter freestyle with a time of 1 minute, 49.03 seconds, slightly better than in Charlotte.
"That's kind of what we wanted to do, to be able to progress throughout the year," he said. "I'm happy where I am now."
When I spoke with Phelps shortly after the Charlotte meet, I asked if he needed better results at some point this year to reinforce his belief in the training he'd embraced. He laughed and said, "Well, it would be nice." He seemed both pleased with the rigor of his efforts and aware that his body is not as resilient at age 29 (he'll turn 30 next week) as it was when he was 19.
He wanted a positive sign because losses lead to doubts, even for a guy with 22 Olympic medals.
Phelps and his teammates will next head to Colorado for altitude training. After that, he'll turn his sights to Phillips 66 Nationals in San Antonio Aug. 6-10. There, Phelps will likely try to post his best times of the year and figure out where he stands as the next Olympics draw near.
His statements coming out of Santa Clara suggest he now believes he's on track.