GOLD COAST, Australia — Michael Phelps received an abrupt reminder of how challenging his return to international competition may be when he was asked whether he was good enough to even reach a final at the Pan Pacific Championships starting Thursday.
Phelps, the most decorated Olympian ever and on the comeback trail from a short-lived retirement, took a deep breath before responding to the question on Wednesday and said: “Wow, you’re really setting the bar high for me!”
His long-time coach, Bob Bowman, chipped in: “Reality check there.”
Phelps qualified by finishing second in the 200-meter medley and the 100 butterfly at the U.S. nationals. The Pan Pacs, at Gold Coast in Australia, is his first international meet since coming out of retirement four months ago, and a springboard for the 2015 world titles and 2016 Olympics.
Only the top two swimmers from each country in the preliminaries qualify for the night finals, so Phelps is going to be under pressure from his American teammates in the morning, and from the best swimmers from Australia, Japan, Canada, Brazil and other Pacific countries in the evening.
Phelps didn’t win any of his four events at the U.S. nationals, although his times in the 200 IM and the butterfly were both among the fastest three in the world this year. He was unhappy with his freestyle, where his finish let him down. He said it was the kind of mistake an 11-year-old would make.
Phelps, who won 18 Olympic gold medals, said he was “kind of rusty on judging the speed going into my walls,” and described his turns as “awful.”
“Those were the big things that I guess I forgot how to do,” he said. “Not winning, it is what it is — I hate to lose — but I always do understand it’s not going to come back instantly.
“I would rather have those instances now than farther down the road. World championships is next year … Olympics the year after that. Hopefully I’ll be able to fix the things now.”
The U.S. team had a setback on the eve of competition, with Olympic and world champion Missy Franklin in doubt after hurting her back in training.
Team USA spokesman Scott Leightman said Franklin had back spasms during practice Tuesday. He said that the 19-year-old Franklin was resting at the team hotel after medical staff controlled the spasms.
He said Franklin, who won both the 100- and 200-meter backstroke at the 2012 Olympics and claimed six golds at the world championships last year, would be re-evaluated later Wednesday or Thursday.
She is scheduled to swim the 100 and 200 freestyle, 100 and 200 backstroke and relays in Australia. The 100 back and 200 free are scheduled for Thursday.
The Australian team is primed for a big performance at home after a winning the swimming competition at the recent Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland.
The competition will be held outdoors at the Gold Coast Aquatic Center, site of the 2018 Commonwealth Games swimming, and rain forecast for later in the week is giving swimmers something extra to think about.
Phelps said it would be a novel experience for him. His friend and long-time rival, Ryan Lochte, said he grew up in Florida and was used to competing in rain.
“You have to prepare yourself for the worst-case scenario. The coaches told us about the weather conditions — how cold it was going to be, the wind, being outside, pitch black dark — we’re all prepared for it,” he said.
Lochte and Phelps have long dominated the 200 IM, but aren’t even seeded No. 1 at the Pan Pacs. Japan’s Kosuke Hagino has the fastest time of the year and his teammate Diaya Seto is also a contender.
“It’s no longer just me and Michael. It’s definitely become a bigger event, and bigger race,” Lochte said.
If Franklin is ruled out, more attention on the U.S. women’s team will center on 17-year-old Katie Ledecky, who broke the 400 freestyle world record at the nationals and now holds world marks in the 400, 800 and 1,500.
“I can improve. I got some good work in after nationals. I’m really excited to see what I can do here,” Ledecky said Wednesday.