Phelps facing toughest challenge yet

Tue Apr 22, 2014 1:13pm EDT
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By Julian Linden

(Reuters) - Michael Phelps has been swimming against the tide all his life. Time and time again he has proved the doubters wrong, setting the standard for Olympic achievement with his 18 gold medals.

But now, almost two years after retiring from swimming and two months shy of his 29th birthday, the American is plunging into uncharted waters by attempting a comeback where the risk-reward ratio is heavily stacked against him.

If all goes well, Phelps could be back on the winner's podium at Rio, although he insists he is still undecided about whether he wants to go to the 2016 Olympics.

If it goes wrong, he will join a long list of great athletes who were lured back to competition but failed to reproduce the form that took them to the top of their chosen sports.

His legacy is already assured. Nothing he does in the future will take away from what he did in the past but as Muhammad Ali, Mark Spitz, Michael Jordan, Bjorn Borg and Michael Schumacher all discovered, it can still become a permanent footnote.

Phelps has not yet given a full explanation for his decision to come back or his plans for the future. That will come on Wednesday when he and longtime coach Bob Bowman face the media before the April 24-26 Grand Prix meet in Mesa, Arizona, where he will make his return.

A global sporting icon, Phelps has already amassed a fortune through his endorsements so money is unlikely to be the driving motivation to get him back in the pool for the grueling training required to be an Olympic swimmer.

Nor is he likely to top his past achievements so anything he does is likely to be less than before. He won six gold medals at Athens in 2004 and an unprecedented eight at Beijing in 2008 when he was at his absolute peak.   Continued...

U.S. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps poses with his Special Laureus Award during the 2013 Laureus World Sports Awards, at Municipal Theater in Rio de Janeiro March 11, 2013. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes