If Michael Phelps learned one thing this past weekend, it would be that nothing ⎯ not even sleeping in an altitude tent ⎯ can substitute for proper training.
“No more playing,” Phelps said soberly on Sunday after finishing second in both the 200 medley and 100 freestyle.
Phelps competed in six events at the Eric Namesnik USA Swimming Grand Prix, a three-day swim meet held at Canham Natatorium in honor of the former Michigan Olympian and assistant coach who died in a tragic car accident in 2006. The event was one of seven meets in the Grand Prix series, and swimmers flew in from all corners of the country to earn qualifying times for the national team trials.
Last weekend was Phelps’ first return visit to Ann Arbor since his appearance at the football game against Wisconsin in 2008. But despite making stops at the local restaurants and catching up with old friends, it was probably a weekend he would rather forget.
On Friday, Phelps placed first in the 200 freestyle, narrowly edging out rival Ryan Lochte by 0.24 seconds. He then won the 100 butterfly with a time of 52.30 seconds ⎯ more than two seconds slower than the world record he set in Rome in 2009.
The victories were more bitter than sweet.
“To be able to swim where I want to swim internationally at the level I want to swim right now, there are some improvements that need to be made,” Phelps said. “I’ve got some work to do. My stroke didn’t feel very good tonight, but I was able to get into the water and race.”
Saturday and Sunday weren’t much kinder to the 14-time gold medalist. Phelps appeared to be in bad shape at the end of the 200 fly, slipping from a close second place to fourth during the last 25 meters. Wu Peng, an Olympic swimmer from China who has been training with Michigan coach Mike Bottom for the past year, claimed first, while former Wolverine Tyler Clary finished third.
Phelps hasn’t lost in the 200 fly since 2002 when he was touched out by Tom Malchow in the Yokohama Pan Pacific Swimming Championships. He doesn’t recall the exact number of wins he has accumulated since then, but when forced to make a guess, he said, “probably 60-0, somewhere around there.”
Upon finishing the race, a visibly frustrated Phelps left the water without waiting to hear the announcement of the results.
“If this isn’t my wake-up call, I don’t know what is,” Phelps said. “That’s not a race you can fake, and I’ve been able to get away with not training as I should for a while, and like I said, everything’s caught up.
“The first (loss) always stings, but that’s the one that stays with me the longest.”
The poor finish left such a bad taste in his mouth that Phelps admitted he won his next race, the 100 backstroke, fueled solely on one emotion.
“Just anger,” Phelps said.
Though his performances last weekend were underwhelming, Phelps said that the Grand Prix is one of several competitions in which he will participate leading up to the FINA World Championships in Shanghai this summer and ultimately 2012 Olympic games in London. His next stop is at the UltraSwim Grand Prix in Charlotte, NC.
In other words, Phelps will have plenty of opportunities to get back in shape and redeem himself.
Picking up where he left off two years ago has been harder than he expected, Phelps said, but he and long-time coach Bob Bowman have been able to start with what he calls “little improvements” to his training. Phelps mentioned that he’s been trying to increase his recovery rate, for instance, by sleeping in what he calls a “hypoxic tent,” a device that boosts red blood cell production by simulating altitude.
Actual training, however, will be emphasized.
“I think this weekend was really good,” Phelps said. “I’m glad it was here rather than somewhere else down the road. Hopefully I can just work on changing that between now and Charlotte.”