Michael Phelps has rejoined the U.S. drug-testing program, the strongest sign yet that he’s returning for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency said Phelps was among the athletes who underwent doping tests in the third quarter, the period ending Sept. 30. He was tested twice.
That coincides with Phelps’ longtime coach, Bob Bowman, telling The Associated Press last month the swimming great had resumed occasional training at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. Bowman, however, characterized it more as an effort to get in shape than launch a comeback.
Still, by subjecting himself to drug testing, Phelps sets himself up to begin competing again by next summer if he chooses. That would give him plenty of time to get in peak condition for the next major meet, the 2015 world championships in Russia, where nearly all of the top swimmers are expected to take part as a steppingstone to the Rio Games the following summer.
FINA, the world governing body for swimming, requires an athlete to be tested for at least nine months before taking part in sanctioned events.
Phelps has already returned to the pool. Last month, Bowman wrote in a text to the AP, “He is occasionally training with the group to get back in shape.”
Further stoking speculation about a comeback, Phelps turned up Friday at the Arena Grand Prix event in Minneapolis and, according to Swimming World, even took part in warm-up activities in the diving well.
“I don’t think we look at it as bad news,” said Chuck Wielgus, the executive director of USA Swimming, declining to comment further. “It’s wait and see like everybody else. I want Michael to do whatever he thinks is best for Michael.”
Phelps is the winningest and most decorated athlete in Olympic history. He captured 18 gold medals and 22 medals overall at the last three Summer Games, shattering the previous marks. He is best known for breaking Mark Spitz’s record for a single Olympics by winning eight gold medals in Beijing in 2008.
He retired at age 27 after winning six more medals at last summer’s London Olympics, adamant that he had no intention of competing again. Phelps had long said his goal was to retire from swimming before he turned 30.
“Sure, I could come back in another four years. But why?” he said last December, after being honored as AP male athlete of the year. “I’ve done everything I wanted to do. There’s no point in coming back.”
But, as speculation swirled about a possible flip-flop, Phelps softened his stance this past summer. He told the AP during the world championships in Barcelona, “I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
When asked, yes or no, whether he would compete at the next Olympics, Phelps would say only that he hasn’t planned that far ahead in his life.
“I don’t know. We’re in 2013,” he said. “There’s nothing in the works right now.”
Phelps will be 31 at the time of the opening ceremony for the Rio Games — not that old, really, for today’s top-flight swimmers, who have more opportunities to cash in on their success and can extend their athletic careers well into their 30s.
Heck, Dara Torres was 41 when she won three silver medals in Beijing.
Phelps doesn’t need the money, of course, having earned tens of millions of dollars in endorsements during his career, and he remains a marketable name, even in retirement. If he does come back, it will likely be another case of an athlete who simply missed the thrill of competition, the day-to-day grind of proving himself against other top swimmers.
When he retired, Phelps talked longingly about sleeping late and doing what he wanted without dealing with the often-brutal demands of his sport. He opened a chain of swim schools and planned to work more extensively with his foundation, which is devoted to water safety. He had hoped to stoke his fierce competitive side by getting serious about golf, taking part in a television series with famed coach Hank Haney.
Phelps even joked that golf, which is returning to the Olympic program in 2016, was the only sport he’d possibly compete in at Rio.
He soon learned how unrealistic that really was.
“It’s probably the most humbling thing I’ve ever done, the most humbling sport I’ve ever done, the toughest thing I’ve ever done,” Phelps said.
That’s another matter.