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David Ramsey: Brace yourself, Michael Phelps itching to return to pool

April 21, 2017 Updated: April 24, 2017 at 10:01 am
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Michael Phelps plows through the water on his way to his 22nd Olympic Gold Medal, this time in the 200-meter Individual Medley at the Rio Olympic Games Thursday, August 13, 2016. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

Michael Phelps is probably, if not certainly, going to swim in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. He will probably add to his vast collection of gold medals. And he will probably promise - guarantee! - that he's retiring.

Then, about four years from now, he'll change his mind one last time and chase one last go-around at the 2024 Los Angeles Olympics.

On August, I stood among a big crowd of sports journalists in Rio de Janeiro, where Phelps had finished an astonishing Olympic performance. After a sluggish, far-below-his-standards performance at the 2012 London Games, Phelps splashed to five gold medals in Brazil, pushing his total to 23 golds. (He has 28 overall medals.)

With a straight face, and with apparent sincerity, Phelps made an announcement to our big crowd.

"I'm not competing in four years," he said.

Did he mean it?

I think he did, at that moment.

But the lure of the water will be too much for Phelps, who is not the world's most well-rounded man. He's the creature from the clear lagoon, a swimming monster with the immense talent and just-as-immense drive to keep winning golds. He could, if he swims in two more Olympics, swim away with more than 30 golds in his collection.

For the greats, abandoning their chosen sports is excruciating. The greats rule the world in their sport. They are the elite, the absolute best, and they must realize, somewhere deep inside their heart, a painful truth.

They will not be the best in the world in any other pursuit.

The Phelps show has been full of thrills, full of trouble and, mostly, full of victory. He arrived at the 2000 Games as a ridiculously skinny 15-year-old, but still just missed winning a bronze medal. In 2008, Phelps roared to eight golds and seven world records. This was outlandish greatness.

He barely trained for the 2012 Games, and it showed. He was passed twice in the final stretches of races. He looked weary. He looked finished.

His hunger returned in 2014 following a brush with the law for speeding and driving under the influence. He was contrite. He promised to change, and he did. He embraced a Spartan lifestyle, and embarked on his first comeback.

Phelps has plenty left to give for his second comeback. He turns 32 in June. He's six months younger than LeBron James. And, unlike football and basketball, swimming does not place a crushing burden on the body. Dara Torres swam to three silver medals in the 2008 Olympics. She was 41, and had an infant daughter. Phelps will be 35 in 2020 and 39 in 2024.

In 2013, when Phelps "retired" for the first time, he traveled to Barcelona to watch the world championships. He watched poolside. He was a spectator. He was allegedly done forever with competition.

"I was just like, 'This is a joke. How can these guys be this slow,'" Phelps told the Associated Press this week as he traveled back to 2013 and Barcelona.

He's now talking about traveling to Budapest to watch the 2017 world championships.

"The true test will be, if I do end up going over the to the worlds this summer, do I have that itch again?" Phelps asked.

The answer is that one is easy.

Yes. He'll have that itch again, the itch that pushes the giants back to the realm that made them giant.

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