ATHENS, Ga. – Michael Phelps is starting to look like that Michael Phelps again.
He won the men's 100-meter butterfly event here at the Bulldog Grand Slam on Friday night, beating rival Ryan Lochte by more than a second in his fourth meet since coming out of retirement. It's an event that both swimmers are using as a tune-up for the national championships.
Phelps touched first in 51.67 seconds, the third-fastest time in the world this year in the men's 100 fly. Entering the meet, he and his coach had made it clear the goal was to break the 52-second barrier.
"Seeing 52.1 so many times was really frustrating, kind of annoying," Phelps said after the race. "I am very pleased with being able to go 51. In the grand scheme of things, it's just a small stepping stone toward hopefully going where we want to be."
Phelps' time was also less than half a second off his London Olympic gold medal-winning time of 51.21. For someone who took more than a year off from swimming and has raced just a few times since returning, it's certainly promising — particularly with the Rio Games a little more than two years away.
Perhaps even more promising: Phelps said he feels he's not where he needs to be with his turn and his finish. There's still room for the most decorated Olympian ever to grow in his signature event, apparently.
"I would have liked to have the No. 1 time of the world," Phelps said. "I'm just long on the turn and could have had more momentum coming into the finish. But to go 51.6 … I guess I can't really be too disappointed or too frustrated after that swim."
Outside of a good reason to pack the pool — organizers estimated that there were 1,100 fans in the crowd — Friday's marquee matchup also provided a glimpse into the immediate future. Both Phelps and Lochte, along with Missy Franklin, will headline the national championship meet, which begins in Irvine, Calif., on Aug. 6. Phelps and Lochte are expected to compete head-to-head in the 100 fly, among other events, in a meet with much at stake. Results from the national championships and the Pan Pacific Championships will determine the U.S. national team for the 2015 world championships.
This weekend in Athens, the two could race again if both qualify for the finals in the 100 backstroke (Saturday) and/or the 100 freestyle (Sunday).
But for those monitoring Phelps' return, the 100 fly is the event to watch. He has won gold medals in this race in each of the past three Olympic Games.
"I hate to lose and it pisses me off, but he swam a fantastic race," Lochte said. "He was really fast."
Back in April, these two met in the men's 100 fly final at the Arena Mesa Grand Prix, a race Lochte won by two-tenths of a second to spoil Phelps' initial comeback meet.
Ryan Lochte, right, looks over in the direction of Michael Phelps, left, as they get ready to compete in the men's 100-meter butterfly at the Bulldog Grand Slam swim meet at the University of Georgia, Friday in Athens, Ga.(Photo: David Goldman AP)
Lochte is in the midst of a comeback himself. Friday's competition marked Lochte's first in more than two months after re-injuring his left knee. In November, Lochte tore his MCL and sprained his ACL in a freak accident involving an interaction with a fan. The initial injury kept him out of the pool for nearly two months; re-injuring it forced him to train cautiously and miss a few meets.
"I really believe in everything happens for a reason," Lochte said. "The only thing that I do regret is that I wasn't able to be in that water because once I'm in that water, I'm at home and I feel normal. It is my home."
In addition to the 100 fly, Lochte also competed in the 200 freestyle Friday, posting a 1:48.69 during his final heat, the fourth-fastest time of the night.
"I just wanted to go out there and race and have fun," Lochte said. "I forgot how much fun racing and the excitement of being on those blocks was. ... I had two good, solid races. I'm happy with them. I still have two and half more weeks to fix all the little things and get ready for nationals."