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Column: Phelps is back where he belongs – the pool
Michael Phelps warms up prior to a 50-meter freestyle preliminary heat at the Arena Grand Prix swim event, Friday, April 25, 2014, in Mesa, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Column: Phelps is back where he belongs – the pool

Comebacks can be a tricky thing. Sometimes, the mind is willing, but the body just can’t perform at the level it once did. Or, the body is again honed to peak condition, only to discover something else has gone missing — the ruthless desire to win that separates the greats from everyone else.

Neither should be a hindrance for Michael Phelps.

This comeback is different on so many levels from those that ended sadly for the likes of Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan (Part III). Phelps is only 28, which in swimming terms puts him a little past his prime, perhaps, but certainly not over the hill. Shoot, Dara Torres won three medals in her early 40s at Beijing.

And, while Phelps has absolutely nothing left to prove after winning more Olympic hardware than anyone, he has always seemed more comfortable taking on a challenge than relishing a result.

Rest assured, he has forgotten about the 18 golds and 22 total medals he hoarded at the last three Olympics.

His only focus now is on Rio, where the guess is he’ll win at least three more golds in 2016.

“He has a plan,” Torres said. “There’s no way he’s coming back without a plan.”

Wisely, Phelps is downplaying what the future may hold, giving himself plenty of wiggle room in case he can’t recapture some reasonable facsimile of his former dominance (not likely) or discovers the renewed motivation he thought was there really isn’t (even more implausible). For now, he won’t even say the Olympics are on his radar, though that might be the most ludicrous scenario of all.

Phelps wouldn’t be doing this unless he was firmly convinced that not only can he make it back to the Olympics, but that he can touch the wall ahead of everyone else more than a few times.

Before we get too carried away, there won’t be anything close to the grueling programs that Phelps swam in Athens (eight events), Beijing (eight again) or London (seven). As great as he was and surely can be again, the grind of a long career has taken its toll, his body no longer able to recover from as many as 16 or 17 races — counting preliminaries, semifinals and finals — in an eight-day period.

But Phelps can surely handle five events in Rio, especially when he’s unlikely to return to his most taxing race: the individual medley, a mix of all four swimming strokes over 200 and a downright brutal 400 meters. He will focus on the 100 butterfly, an event he won at the last three Olympics, and probably the 100 freestyle, an event that always showed promise but was never part of his Olympic program. He might throw in a 200 free every now and then, though not at the Olympics, just to ensure he’s in consideration for all three relays.

For most swimmers, five events would be a huge load. For Phelps, it will seem more like a vacation, allowing him to get the down time he needs to be at his best on race day. With that program, three golds seems like a minimum he could win, given the Americans’ traditional strength in the relays and Phelps’ mastery of the fly (he threw up the fourth-fastest time in the world this year in his first event back on Thursday).

Everyone wants to know why Phelps returned to swimming, when he was so adamant less than two years ago that London was his farewell.

There could be some financial motivation, given his longtime swimsuit contract with Speedo ran out at the end of last year and he could set himself up to earn millions with a new deal, perhaps earning a cut of the action, like Jordan with his eponymous line of sneakers. But it’s doubtful Phelps really needs the money or that’s a major factor.

When Phelps retired from swimming in 2012, he made it clear that golf was his next love. That was supposed to be the outlet for his competitive juices, and he even joked that the only way he would return to the Olympics was as a golfer. Everyone laughed, but deep down Phelps probably believed that he could somehow turn himself into something close to a pro-caliber golfer through sheer willpower and work. By last summer, it was apparent that wasn’t going to happen. Phelps called golf the hardest thing he’s ever done; swimming, he came to realize, was the better option for proving he’s the best at something.

“Golf is something that I will be able to do for the rest of my life,” he said. “There still is a lot of work that needs to be done in that sport for me to be able to get to where I want to go, even after hitting 20,000 golf balls in six months.”

Most likely of all, Phelps simply missed the structured life of swimming, the only life he’s really ever known. He was no doubt sincere when he announced his retirement and said he was eager to take on new challenges. But once he was out there in his version of the real world, it simply wasn’t what he expected.

“When you’re on the top of your sport and all of a sudden you’re not and you’re out there in life,” Torres said, “you miss what you used to do.”

So, he’s back.

Back where he belongs.

Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry@ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

AP Sports Writer Beth Harris in Mesa, Ariz., contributed to this report.

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