Michael Phelps brings back swimming - Los Angeles Post-ExaminerLos Angeles Post-Examiner

Michael Phelps brings back swimming

Sports needed this.

Swimming needed this.

And of course, Baltimore needed this.

Michael Phelps is back, which means swimming is back and even more importantly, it means one of the most underappreciated sports rivalries is back: Phelps vs. Ryan Lochte.

You can’t have a sport without a rivalry, which makes fans gravitate to the competition, whether it’s on land or water.

nbc-olympics-swim-liveThe Ravens have the Steelers, and the Orioles have the Red Sox. But those are teams and Phelps is a 28-year-old man, well, more like a demigod considering what he does in the pool isn’t human.

How many great athlete vs. athlete rivalries are there right now? LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant? Nope. Talk to me when Durant beats James in the Finals. Baseball? Who?

What about boxing? The Baby Boomer generation grew up with Muhammad Ali, who never stopped throwing jabs – verbally or physically – at opponents. Now, we have Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao talking about fighting each other instead of actually, well, you know, getting in the ring and proving who’s the man.

I miss the days when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird went at each other. I long for the time when Michael Jordan had to learn to fail against the Pistons before conquering them. And how about the Knicks and Heat? I still crack a smile when I see footage of Knicks Coach Jeff Van Gundy clinching Alonzo Mourning’s leg like a toddler during the 1998 playoffs.

Every decade can be defined by its rivalries. The 70s had the Steelers and Cowboys and even NASCAR was in the mix, with Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough trading punches next to the track at the 1979 Daytona 500. Awesome.

The 80s had had Martina Navratilova against Chris Evert and the Edmonton Oilers against everyone else. The 90’s had Pate Sampras and Andre Agassi.

Sports forces us pick sides. You can’t like the Terps and Duke, just as you can’t cheer for the Yankees and Red Sox. You either cheer for Tiger Woods or the rest of the field, with the same applying to NASCAR drivers.

phelpsmedalThat’s why swimming needs Phelps back in the pool. Lochte, a native New Yorker, simply isn’t polarizing enough, or good enough, to carry swimming the way Mark Spitz did decades ago. How many professional swimming races did you watch after Phelps called it quits? That’s what I thought.

But Phelps says he’s coming back and immediately, swimming’s relevant again.

How else can you explain North Carolina’s Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center selling out for Charlotte Grand Prix on May 16? For the record, that’s a swimming meet, not an auto race.

The capacity crowd saw something that hadn’t happened in nearly two years, as Phelps won the 100-meter butterfly in 52.13 seconds, his first title since his gold rush at the 2012 Olympics in London.

“It’s nice seeing a number one next to your name,” Phelps told reporters after waving to the crowd.

How much faster would his time have been if he hadn’t spent the past 18 months on the golf course, where he claimed to have struck 20,000 balls in the past six months before returning to the pool in April?

Next up: U.S. Nationals in Irvine, Calif., in three months.

You want to bet against Phelps? I wouldn’t, especially when he’ll spend 30 days at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, which is known for its high altitude.

“I don’t really like being up there, but I know that I really benefit from it,” Phelps told reporters.

All of the sudden, swimming is in a news cycle dominated by the NHL and NBA playoffs and the NFL Draft. On SportsCenter, Phelps received more coverage than the Orioles.

And for good reason. The only way Phelps, an avid Ravens and Orioles fan, could be any more “Baltimore” is if you covered him in Old Bay. When Phelps is at the starting block, our city is there with him. By having Phelps, we could go to anywhere and say our guy is better than your guy. Phelps isn’t one of those athletes who lives here during the season and spends the offseason in Miami.

phelps1Phelps lives in Canton.

Even Lochte, an 11-time Olympic medalist, acknowledges swimming is much better with Phelps in the pool than on the golf course.

“With what he’s done for the sport of swimming and him leaving kind of broke my heart a little because I love getting on those blocks and racing him,” Lochte told reporters after his winning time of 51.93 seconds was two-tenths of a second faster than Phelps (52.13) in the 100-meter butterfly last month at the Arena Grand Prix at the Skyline Aquatic Center in Arizona. “Now that he’s back, I’ve got a big ol’ smile on my face.”

And so does everyone else. We get another chapter in the Phelps-Lochte saga, with the two biggest bullies on the block, lining up at that the starting block, wanting nothing more than to touch the wall before the other guy.

Phelps, a Rodgers Forge native, has won a world record 22 Olympic medals, including 18 gold medals that probably are worth more than Dundalk.

The guy’s super human. Who else can go from retiring after the 2012 London Games and, with minimal training, jump and beat Lochte – and everyone else – by swimming the fastest qualifying time in the 100-meter butterfly in 52.84 seconds as he did in Arizona?

“Him and I can’t stand losing to one another,” Phelps told reporters at the meet. “We both want to beat each other as many times as we can. That’s the competitiveness we both have. When we do get in the water, we’re going to do everything we can to get our hand on the wall before [the other] in every single race. And it’s the same for him. We’ll fight to the end, in any stroke, in any event we swim.”

But why, when Phelps has accomplished so much, is he coming back?

“I’m doing this for me,” Phelps said at a press conference before swimming in Arizona. “I’m doing this because I enjoy being in the pool and I enjoy the sport of swimming. I am looking forward to wherever this road takes me.”

Michael, we all know where this road is leading: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the 2016 Olympics.

 


About the author

Jon Gallo

Jon Gallo is an award-winning journalist and editor with 18 years experience, including stints as a staff writer at The Washington Post and sports editor at The Baltimore Examiner. He's also an editor for CBSSports.com. He's crossing his fingers the only baseball team in Baltimore that will contend for a title this summer won't be his fantasy squad, the Catonsville Cartel. He also believes the government should declare federal holidays in honor of the following: the Round of 64 of the NCAA men's basketball tournament; the Friday of the Sweet 16; the Monday after the Super Bowl; and of course, the day after the release of the latest Madden NFL video game. Contact the author.
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