Phelps, whose record 22 Olympic medals include an astonishing 18 golds, was beaten in the 100m butterfly final at the Mesa Grand Prix by old foe Ryan Lochte.
Lochte led at the 50m mark and held on to win in 51.93sec — second-fastest in the world this year — while Phelps was second in 52.13, matching the fourth-fastest time of 2014.
“I did what I wanted to do,” said Phelps, adding he’d targeted a time of about 52 seconds.
“The race was fun. The stroke was a little rushed tonight, it was way more relaxed this morning. But I swam a final again.”
Lochte, whose most memorable duels with his US Olympic teammate have come in individual medley races, was thrilled to line up against Phelps again.
“I probably wouldn’t have gone that time if Phelps wasn’t in there,” Lochte said. “I’m glad he’s back.
“Him leaving, it kind of broke my heart a little. Racing against him is so much fun.”
Phelps had made it look easy in posting the fastest time of the heats on Thursday morning at Skyline Aquatic Center in suburban Phoenix, Arizona.
However, he said his first race in nearly two years felt “strange”.
“I felt like a summer league swimmer today,” Phelps said after the heats. “I felt like I should have my heat and lane number written on my hand in case I forget it.”
But by the time the final rolled around, Phelps had his game face on, seemingly oblivious to the cheers of the sell-out crowd of 1,200.
“I was more serious tonight than I was this morning,” Phelps said. “I knew what I wanted to do.”
He wasn’t too quick off the blocks, and said his turn was “probably the worst” of his career.
Coach Bob Bowman — who agreed about the turn — said the technical glitches could be fixed.
“I think that’s a really good time to start with,” Bowman said of Phelps’s performance in an event in which he is the world record-holder and three-time reigning Olympic champion.
“It’s totally expected,” Bowman said of the mistakes. “He hadn’t been in a race in two years until this morning… his timing was a little off at the start, then he scrambled to catch up, then he missed a stroke. By the time he got going it was kind of over.”
Phelps is entered in Friday’s 50m freestyle, in which Bowman said he’ll actually swim butterfly for training purposes.
Mostly Bowman is happy to see Phelps’s enthusiasm for racing, and the excitement his presence in the meet has generated.
“It’s fun to have him here. It’s fun to see what he brought to the sport, and that’s really what he wants to do… as long as he’s enjoying it like he is, it’s good for everybody.”
– Road to Rio? –
While many think Phelps is a lock to swim in Rio, the man himself keeps cautioning that it’s a long road to 2016.
“This is one meet, it’s one race,” Phelps said. “It’s a long way whether I decide to continue or not. I’m doing this because I’m having fun, I’m just enjoying myself on this road, this process, this journey.”
But Phelps’s return has already galvanized swimming fans.
Tickets to all sessions at the Mesa meet were sold out the day after Phelps announced on April 14 that he would return — compared to one sold-out session last year.
The 100 media credentials issued were five times as many as last year.
More telling, perhaps, is the welcome Phelps is receiving from his fellow swimmers.
“He’s the greatest of all time and always will be that,” 12-time Olympic medallist Natalie Coughlin said. “So this is just all icing on the cake.”