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2016 might be the best year of Michael Phelps’ life

2016 might be the best year of Michael Phelps’ life.

Yes, better than 2000, when he made his Olympic debut as a lanky 15-year-old.

Yes, better than 2004, when he became the first U.S. athlete to capture eight medals in a single Olympic Games.

Yes, better than 2008, when his perfect eight-for-eight gold medals bested the efforts of Mark Spitz in 1972.

Yes, better than 2012, when he cemented his legacy as the most decorated Olympian of all time and his medal count reached 22.

He briefly retired following the 2012 Olympics, but had regrets about his career. A telling interview with Sports Illustrated revealed his motivations were lacking. Phelps and longtime coach Bob Bowman had one memorable blowout fight in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics. Phelps didn’t come back to practice for 10 days. On the 11th day, he came back – but only because Matt Lauer and the Today show crew were coming to film a profile on Phelps.

He returned to the Arena Pro Series stop in Mesa, Arizona in April 2014 for his first races in 20 months. He wouldn’t commit to making a run at the 2016 Rio Olympics, but from the crowd, his mother Debbie said she supported him no matter what.

Rival Ryan Lochte beat Phelps in his signature event, the 100m butterfly. Yet he continued to have a moderately successful summer, competing at more Arena Pro stops, nationals and the Pan Pacific Championships.

In September 2014, Phelps was arrested for a drunken driving incident after being pulled over for going 84 mph in a 45 mph zone. He checked himself into a rehabilitation center for 45 days in Arizona. It was during the first few days of rehab that he found out from watching television that he would not be joining the U.S. team at the 2015 World Championships. USA Swimming suspended him for six months.

In February 2015, Phelps announced his engagement to Nicole Johnson. In April 2015, Phelps again made a “comeback” to the Arena Pro Series in Mesa, Arizona. This time, he said he was committed to Rio. His momentum was building.

In July, he swam his final race at his longtime training club, the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. He followed Bowman to his new training post at Arizona State University.

In August 2015, while Team USA was collecting its fewest overall Worlds medals in 50 years, Phelps posted three of the fastest times in the world that year at the national championships. His times in the 200m individual medley and 100m and 200m butterflies would have won the world championships.

Phelps kicked off 2016 with a bang. He beat Lochte for the first time in the 200m individual medley since the London Olympics at January’s Arena Pro stop in Austin, Texas.

And again he appeared at the April Arena Pro Series in Mesa, putting audible air quotes around the idea of the meet as his perennial comeback meet. He battled high winds at the outdoor venue, but won the 200m butterfly and the 200m IM before heading off to a six-week camp at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. He told media a plane was on stand-by to take him back to see the birth of his son during the training trip.

On May 5, Phelps welcomed his first son with fiancee Nicole Johnson. Boomer Robert Phelps was born about three weeks early and weighed in at 6 pounds, 12 ounces and 19.5 inches long. Phelps hopes his son can join him at U.S. Trials in Omaha, Nebraska in June followed by the 2016 Olympics.

Phelps has confirmed 2016 will be his final Olympics. He said that before 2012, too, but explained this time is different because he is retiring the way he wants to.

What else can Phelps expect from 2016? The joys of fatherhood, newlywed bliss (his marriage to Johnson is planned for the end of the year) and the oddities of experiencing swimming from a new angle. He’ll join Bowman on the deck as a volunteer assistant coach at Arizona State University.

Before that, Bowman will act as head coach for the U.S. men’s Olympic team for 2016. Bowman had previously been on deck as the Olympic Team assistant coach in the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Games.

Recent medal count projections predict that Phelps will capture five gold medals and a bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympics, bringing his overall medal count to 23 golds, two silvers and three bronzes. 

Phelps has the chance to claim the most Olympic medals in individual events, surpassing gymnast Larisa Latynina’s 14. Phelps has 13 heading into Rio. He could also join the likes of the U.S.’ Al Oerter and Carl Lewis and Denmark’s Paul Elvstrom in winning four gold medals in the same individual event if Phelps wins the 100m butterfly and/ or the 200m individual medley. Phelps is chasing the title of first athlete to win at least three gold medals at four consecutive Olympics. Phelps was already the first to win three gold medals at three consecutive Olympics, which Jamaican track star Usain Bolt has the opportunity to tie in Rio.

Phelps could also become the oldest individual swimming gold medalist. The Netherlands’ Inge de Bruijn was just shy of 31 years old in 2004 when she won the 50m freestyle. Phelps will be 31 years old, a new father and definitively retired by the conclusion of the Games. Lochte will turn 32 just days before the 2016 Opening Ceremony.

Phelps, known for his jaw-dropping, fast-charging back-half power has a chance to do it one more time. He was less than half a second out from landing on the podium in his first Olympics in 2000. He won the 100m butterfly in 2008 by one one-hundredth of a second. South Africa’s Chad le Clos touched out a charging Phelps in 2012 in the 200m butterfly by 0.05 seconds, but Phelps rebounded and claimed gold in the 100m butterfly by more than two-tenths.

With one final push, it’s 2016 that could be Phelps’ greatest come-from-behind finish yet.