BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — Michael Phelps is acting like the new guy on the team, introducing himself to swimmers he doesn’t know and trying to make some new friends.
The most recognizable and successful swimmer in the world really is doing the meet-and-greet as he prepares for the next week’s Pan Pacific Championships, having made a U.S. team for the first time since he came out of retirement.
Phelps retired after the London Olympics in 2012 but made a comeback to competitive swimming four months ago.
“I’m usually pretty quiet on these trips — keep to myself, do what I need to do,” he said. “I’m trying to make it more of a point to talk to everybody. People I don’t know, I’m trying to introduce myself. Trying to bring them out of their shell a little bit.”
Clearly, they know who he is, and perhaps are a little bit in awe of the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time.
“It’s kind of weird being one of the old guys,” said Phelps, who made his international debut at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. “It’s gotten weirder and weirder throughout my career because I started as being a young little 15-year-old boy and now I’m one of the oldest guys in the team.”
Phelps finished second in the 100 butterfly and in the 200 individual medley at the U.S. trials last week, sixth in the 100 backstroke and seventh in the 100 freestyle. The second places were enough to secure his place at the Pan Pacs on Australia’s Gold Coast, where swimmers can compete in preliminaries of any event they choose, and keep him in contention for the 2015 world championships.
In the 200 IM, the three-time Olympic champion had to chase the whole race and was touched out by Ryan Lochte, the reigning world champion who has had his own troubles this year with an injured knee. Phelps said he learned a lot about himself during his time away from swimming, and Lochte has sensed some mellowing in his old friend.
“You’ve seen actually a big change in him. Not only as a swimmer, as a human being,” Lochte said after a squad training session in Brisbane on Saturday. “He’s taking his time outside the pool to help the other kids, teaching them things that he’s learned along the way growing up as a swimmer. That’s awesome — I love that.”
Katie Ledecky is one of those swimmers in the getting-to-know-you phase with Phelps. She was the youngest on the U.S. team for the London Olympics, where Phelps had a packed program and rarely got time to mix with teammates.
She set a world record in the 400 freestyle at the U.S. nationals, giving her world marks in the 400, 800 and 1,500 at the same time. Ledecky said she doesn’t model herself on other swimmers, but is certainly taking notice of what the veterans like Phelps do in and out of the water.
“It’s just a great presence for our team,” Ledecky said. “Everybody looks up to him.”
The Pan Pacs are likely to be the biggest meet of 2014 for most competitors, given it’s in the year between the world championships and two years before the next Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. That’s ideal for Phelps, who sees it as springboard back into elite competition.
“The biggest thing about this summer was getting on a team, to hopefully propel me for next year,” he said. “Step one is complete. This is a good starting point.”
As far as racing programs go, Rio is a distant thought for the 29-year-old Phelps.
“I don’t even know what I’m swimming next week, so I’m not sure what the future will hold,” he said. “I’m not swimming eight again — that is a safe thing to say.”
Phelps knows he has deadlines to meet, but is making sure he’s not rushing his comeback and is trying not to get frustrated by narrow defeats.
“I still can’t stand to lose,” he said. “I do understand I do have to give my body time. I can’t just expect to do everything I want from the get-go. I still have that competitive side, but it’s going to take a little time to get back.”
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