Why Michael Phelps Won't Return to Olympic Swimming in 2016

Kathy BissellCorrespondent IAugust 8, 2012

US Medley Relay Team helped Michael Phelps win what is probably his last Olympic medal
US Medley Relay Team helped Michael Phelps win what is probably his last Olympic medalRonald Martinez/Getty Images

There’s been a great deal of speculation about the future of Michael Phelps career in swimming—will he come back or won’t he—after he became the all-time leader in Olympic medals. Even the guys on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption got into the act this week. The thing is, the people doing the speculation have never been swimmers and don’t know anything about the sport. They assume because it looks like it’s easy when Phelps swims, he can come back at world class speed any time he wants. They just don’t understand swimming. 

One of my friends, Tracey McFarlane, was an Olympic swimmer in the 1988 Olympic Games.  We became acquainted after she had graduated from the University of Texas and became a swim coach in Palm Springs for age group swimmers. She coached a masters program there, where I was the oldest and slowest one in the pool.  

At that point, a year after Tracey was done competing, she didn’t do much swimming. When she did get in the pool, she always said that anything longer than a workout of 3,000 yards was too much like work and she wouldn’t do it. For the uninitiated, that’s nearly two miles.   

To give you some idea of what she had done up to then, Tracey held the US record in the 100-meter breaststroke from 1988-1992.  She was the NCAA 100-yard breaststroke champion in 1985, 1987 and 1988. In 1991, she was on the gold medal winning FINA World Championship 400-medley relay.   She has a pack of best national times in several years in the mid-1980s. She competed at the 1988 Olympic Games for the USA, where she won a silver medal in the 4x100-meter medley relay. Her teammates in that race were Beth Barr (backstroke), Janel Jorgensen (butterfly) and Mary Wayte (freestyle). 

Tracey was so good at breaststroke that when the 1992 Olympic Trials were approaching,  a year plus after her last competition, she was invited to compete because no one had broken her record. She had not worked out or competed in that time. She had been on the pool deck training other swimmers. 

Tracey got a substitute coach for her age groupers and masters groups and called in a friend to train her for three or four months to try to make the Olympic team again. At trials, she made it to the finals, but was not in the top two. It was amazing that she did that well because of the length of time she had been out of the pool. 

In training, swimmers learn how to perform at top levels while in oxygen debt. They practice swimming pool lengths with no breaths so that when they have to finish in a hurry, they can put their heads down and go, not even taking the time to breathe. That’s what goes first. Air. Swimming never leaves completely compared to real humans, but the air goes first.  

Twelve years after that Olympic Trials, Tracey was working on a swimming book with me. She demonstrated breaststroke for the photos and her pullout still got her halfway down a 25-yard pool without any apparent effort. She will never forget how swim breaststroke, but she would not have the same strength or speed or breathing ability that she had when she retired from competition.   

What will keep Phelps from coming back is that swimming doesn’t really have an offseason. His competition is not stopping just because he is. He knows that.

For swimmers in the US, the winter season starts in August or September when school begins.  That’s short course yards season and it goes through spring. Then it’s a three- or four-week break before the summer season starts. Summer is long course meters, and at the end there is another three-week-or-so break, and then it’s back to the winter program. 

Swimming is not a 17-week season plus preseason games or a 162-game season plus spring training.  It never stops. When you don’t train, after you lose the ability to breathe, you lose your speed. It starts to go as quickly as three weeks. In swimming you get out of training and racing shape pretty quickly. 

The reason Phelps lost the 400 IM in the Olympics is he didn’t train hard enough to succeed at it. He might still be able to swim a 200 IM without practice when he is 40, but it’s doubtful he’ll be able to do a 400 IM at that point. It just takes too much out of you.  

When Tracey used to say anything over 3,000 yards is work, she meant by comparison. Age group swimmers—in swim clubs like the one Missy Franklin is on—have workouts of 7,000-10,000 yards.  In the summer, that will be twice a day. Plus running or lifting. College swimming, guess what. It’s MORE. 10,000-14,000-yard workouts, sometimes twice a day.

The Olympic program gets to pick the best crop of swimmers every four years, and they are already pre-trained, pre-conditioned by the age group and college coaches. There isn’t much an Olympic coach can do between trials and the Olympics if the age group/swim club coaches haven’t worked their swimmers hard for years.  

So when, after nearly 20 years of swimming, Phelps said he is hanging up his Speedo, it’s important to believe him because he knows how hard it—mentally—to keep working out as hard as he did between 2204 and 2008.  Like Tracey McFarlane, said anything over 3,000 yards is work. And Phelps just doesn’t want to do it any more.

That doesn’t mean he won’t ever swim again or that he won’t compete again. Just that he won’t be in the Olympics. As proof, looking for Tracey’s records in breaststroke, I ran across a press release from the Rowdy Gaines Masters Classic held last October in Orlando and was surprised to see the following:    

“At the Rowdy Gaines meet, such Olympians as Brooke Bennett and Tracey McFarlane were making their Masters swimming debuts, and set relay world records in their return to competition.”   

The records were for their age groups, which is how all swimming records are categorized. Tracey swam the 100-meter short course breaststroke, 50-meter short course breaststroke, both of which she won, and 100-meter short course IM, where she finished second. She also participated in two mixed medley relays, which means men and women on the team. Her short course meters time for 100 breaststroke at the Rowdy Gaines meet was 1:24.51, certainly off her lifetime records.   

In her prime, Tracey’s best short course yards time for 100 yards breaststroke was 1:00.68.  For 100 meters, 1:08.91

Tracey’s best career times:

100 Breaststroke US National/ Open Records (lc= long course, 50 meters, sc= short course, 25 yards)

‘86 Aug. Tracey McFarlane, Palm Springs 1:12.31 (lc)

‘87 - Tracey McFarlane, Texas, 1:00.68 (sc) ( Record)

‘87 Tracy McFarlane, Texas 1:11.19 (lc)

‘88 - Tracey McFarlane, Texas, 1:00.51 (sc)
‘88 Aug. Tracey McFarlane, Longhorn 1:08.91 (lc) ( American Record)

‘89 Aug. Tracey McFarlane, Longhorn 1:09.88 (lc)

‘90 March Tracey McFarlane, Longhorn 1:00.97 (sc)

200 Meter Breaststroke

‘88 Aug. Tracey McFarlane, Longhorn 2:29.82 (lc)

Rowdy Gaines Masters Classic Results:

Women 45-49 100 Short Course Meters Breaststroke (1) McFarlane, Tracey 1:24.51

Women 45-49 50 Short Course Meters Breaststroke  (1) McFarlane, Tracey 37.06    

Women 45-49 100 Short Course Meters IM  (1) Rapuano, Lisa,   1:14.65; (2)  McFarlane, Tracey 1:19.66.

McFarlane swimming at Rowdy Gaines Masters Classic.


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