The more Michael the merrier

AP Photo/Lee Jin-man

Jessica Hardy has been on the U.S. national team with Michael Phelps since 2005.

I have to admit: It’s not often that the whole world is talking about swimming in the spring of a non-Olympic year. That’s what happens when the most decorated Olympian of all time decides to come out of retirement. The return of Michael Phelps is a great thing for our sport, and we were excited to have him back in competition at the Arena Grand Prix in Mesa, Ariz., last week.

As expected, there was a big media presence at the event. There was even a helicopter circling overhead, which isn’t exactly typical. Although most of the press attention was focused in Michael’s direction, all of us enjoyed the atmosphere. The crowds were huge!

The swimming community is a close-knit group, so news of the Phelps comeback wasn’t a total surprise. We train on opposite coasts, but I know from fellow swimmers that he’s been a familiar face at his home base in Baltimore. He’s even made himself available as an unofficial mentor to the national team.

It’s always hard to believe that a larger-than-life sports star is actually humble, hardworking and introverted underneath it all. That’s Michael Phelps in a nutshell.

We first met when I was a rookie teenager; he already was a big star in the swimming world. He had an unmistakable air of confidence, but he didn’t cross the line into cocky territory. In fact, he was pretty quiet, listening to music on those big headphones or playing cards with a few other guys.

That individual approach to his swimming seemed to change two years ago in London. He always has inspired us with his swimming and set a great example for how to handle success, but that summer he appeared to be more laid-back. He joked around with his teammates and even spent time in our team room, which I had never seen him do before. At the time, he was adamant that the Olympics would be the last meet of his career, so I’m guessing he decided to savor every moment. I imagine I’ll feel the same way when I reach my finish line two years from now in Rio.

I don’t know the exact reason for Michael’s return -- it could be anything from boredom to competition withdrawals -- but I hope the media, and even his fellow swimmers, can allow him to maintain his London outlook and swim for the fun of it.

Michael Phelps has accomplished everything there is to accomplish as an athlete, so this comeback, no matter how long it lasts, is just icing on the cake. He has always wanted to make the sport of swimming as big as the NBA, and he’s gotten us off to a pretty good start.