SAN ANTONIO - Michael Phelps showed Friday he's still a formidable force as the Rio Olympics approach, clocking a stunning 1min 52.94sec to win the 200m butterfly at the US swimming championships.
"This next year is going to be pretty damn fun," a laughing Phelps said after posting the fastest time in the world this year - eclipsing Hungarian Laszlo Cseh's world championship-winning time of 1:53.48 in Kazan, Russia, this week.
It's the fastest time Phelps has produced in the event since he set the world record of 1:51.51 in 2009 - and is two-hundredths of a second faster than the 1:52.96 South African Chad Le Clos swam to deny Phelps gold at the London Olympics in 2012.
"It's a good feeling to be back," Phelps said. "I think we're in a pretty good place right now." Phelps was cheered wildly by fans in San Antonio, who stamped on the bleachers and screamed as he squinted to see his time.
When he did, Phelps gave a little "number one" wag of his finger, and as the cheers grew slapped the water in celebration.
"It's good to do it on my own soil - in the country that I represent," said Phelps, whose drunk-driving arrest last September cost him his world championships berth.
Swimming in a US nationals that amounts to a consolation meet, the 18-time Olympic gold medallist showed his campaign to make the Rio Games is right on track, despite a six-month ban from competition and addiction treatment during which he dealt with personal demons in a journey he described this year as "brutal".
"I think it just shows you anything is possible if you want something bad enough," Phelps said.
Coach Bob Bowman called it one of the best races he's ever seen from the swimmer whose resume incudes his glittering eight-gold campaign in Beijing in 2008.
"It was really nice to see that fire," Bowman said after Phelps left Matt Conger a distant second in 1:54.54 by more than a second and a half.
"The way he raced that, that was really gutsy because he's honestly still not in perfect shape for the last 50 (meters) of it, and he just gutted it out." Bowman said it was a validation of Phelps's dedication to getting his life in order, in and out of the pool.
"It all goes together," Bowman said. "All this stuff has really weighed on him. He's dealt with a lot of stuff and dealt with it well.
"I'm really proud of that because it would have broken a lot of people."
'The real level'
Bowman admitted that the setbacks and sluggish performances this season had left room for doubt, even when he knew Phelps, who turned 30 on June 30, was racing in the midst of hard training.
He wasn't surprised to see Phelps's emotions spill over after the races, saying he got a little choked up, too.
"It's been a long, hard road to get here," Bowman said. "And you never really know if you're going to get back to that level - that's the real level." When he launched his comeback from a near two-year retirement in 2014 the 200m fly didn't appear to figure in Phelps's plans.
He failed to break two minutes in the event at a meeting in Charlotte in May, but gave a glimpse of what was to come on Friday morning when he cruised to victory in his heat in 1:55.51.
As for the winning time, Bowman said: "I think some people will be very surprised." Bowman and Phelps - who will swim the 100m fly on Saturday followed by the 200m medley on Sunday, will be resting easy.
"There was a little doubt there," Bowman admitted. "Not so much anymore. Going to sleep tonight."