That's because there is a reason why he spent all those years getting up in the dark to swim all those endless laps. There's a reason why he is the greatest swimmer in history and the most decorated Olympian of all time. And it is not because he was driven toward wealth and fame and all the perks that come with being a jet-set athlete.
He certainly used all that as the carrot on the stick as he was grinding through his last Olympic cycle. He wanted to play golf and go to Vegas and sit down with the sharks at the World Series of Poker. Who wouldn't?
Well, now he's played a ton of golf and figured out that he's not going to make it to the Masters. He has seen his share of river cards in Texas hold-em. He is set up for life with a large variety of commercial endorsement deals. He's got his hometown swim complex and is in a good place with his personal life.
And it's not enough.
Maybe this is presumptuous, but here goes anyway: Phelps has gotten the itch to swim again for some very basic reasons — first and foremost the fact that he is a fierce competitor who has spent much of his life competing at the highest possible level. He traded all those brutal mornings in the pool for the kind of adrenaline rush that the average human can not even imagine. If he didn't miss that, he wouldn't be superhuman.
The real question is not whether he should attempt a comeback and try to make a run at the 2016 Rio Olympics. That's entirely up to him. He has more than earned the right to climb back on the Olympic stage if he can prove to himself and the swimming world that he still has what it takes to add to his unmatched career medal count. The real question is what happens to his legacy if he falls far short of what may be some unrealistic expectations.
The answer, of course, is nothing.
Phelps will still be the greatest swimmer in history if he goes to the Arena Grand Prix in Mesa, Ariz., next week and falls off the blocks.
Concern that his legacy might be damaged by a pedestrian performance flies against both history and logic. There have been plenty of instances where the greatest of the greats have stayed at the party too long, but whatever disappointment that has generated among their fans and the sports historians has dissipated relatively quickly.
Muhammad Ali certainly should have stopped fighting long before he did, but he is more universally revered now than when he was in his prime. Michael Jordan made a triumphant comeback with the Chicago Bulls after announcing a premature retirement to pursue a baseball career, then made a less-triumphant one at 39 with the Washington Wizards, but he's still considered by many to be the greatest basketball player of all time.
Phelps knows that he isn't 22 years old, and he is adjusting his training and event schedule accordingly. It's pretty obvious that he still needs swimming, and it's equally apparent that swimming still needs him, so there really isn't a downside.
He has excelled in one of those rare professions where you're considered old at 28, but it would be foolish to discount his chances of returning to the Olympics or climbing back onto the medal stand.
It is times like these that recall the day a 40-year-old Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in a game against the Kansas City Royals in 1986.
After the game, somebody asked venerable manager Gene Mauch if he was surprised to see such a tremendous feat from a legendary player who was so far on the other side of the hill.
"I'm never surprised,'' Mauch said, "when special people do special things."