When he was 16 years old, Michael Phelps walked into his agent's office in Portland, Maine, and announced, "I want to change the way America views this sport."
Sixteen years later, he has. He changed it during his career, and even after his retirement. There's an international swim meet this week in Istanbul, and nobody's talking about it. But people are talking about Michael Phelps.
Will Phelps return to the pool for the 2016 Games? Reports say yes; he says no. But the fact that he's still such a topic, nearly a year after his last Olympic swim, shows how much he's changed swimming and how much he can still affect it if he comes back.
The possibility of Phelps' return is not shocking – there was doubt cast on his retirement even before he retired in the first place – but this is a rare case where a famous athlete un-retiring is both logical and welcome. He's accomplished everything he's desired in four Olympiads, yet there's more reward waiting for him if he goes for a fifth.
And that reward isn't just measured in gold.
The hubbub over Phelps' return started over the weekend, when Ft. Myers (Fla.) TV station reporter Peter Busch reported Phelps would be swimming in 2016, despite his repeated insistences that he was done with competition. Phelps replied with the classic non-denial denial, tweeting the following:
"Why do I keep getting texts about coming back?" he wrote. "Do [people] really believe everything they hear or read? There are [too] many [people] in the world that think they have a ‘story.' "
The swimming site SwimSwam followed up with more intrigue:
"Phelps has been considering this comeback for about three months now," the site said, based on unnamed sources. "It truly had been planned. However Phelps, as understandably as anybody would in a similar situation, wanted to make the announcement on his own terms, and these were not his terms. This story was leaked by someone that Phelps trusted, though nobody we talked to would [could] speculate on who that leak was."
Then, on Wednesday, Ryan Lochte dove into the speculation deep end by saying he also thinks Phelps will come back.
"I hope he comes back in," the star of What Would Ryan Lochte Do said about what Michael Phelps will do. "I think he will. I know he will. It's just a matter of time and when. I know he will."
A lot of comebacks end up taking some shine off an athlete's reputation. Many of us wish we never saw Michael Jordan in a Wizards uniform, or Brett Favre in a Vikings uniform, or Anthony Weiner in the New York Post this week. Mark Spitz even made a comeback in the 1990s, which was as forgettable as his 1970s career was memorable. But all of those athletes were either broken down, old or both. Phelps is still in his 20s. He'll be 31 when the 2016 Games kick off in Rio de Janeiro. This is more like Barry Sanders coming back after a season off. The chances he'll embarrass himself are next to nothing.
What's more, the stakes would be much different in 2016. He's not going for eight gold medals and a million-dollar bonus. History has already been achieved. It's much more likely he would swim a freestyle event or two, along with perhaps a relay, and enjoy the moment as much or more than he did in London. He won't be loafing it, as Phelps is far too competitive to swim for fun, but his reputation will remain sterling no matter what. He'll finish those Games with more gold medals than anyone who ever lived even if he doesn't medal once.
And there's the never-ending opportunity to shine a spotlight on a sport that still needs more eyes and more dollars.
He's sure made progress in achieving his teenage goal. The entire swimming competition in Beijing took place early in the morning, simply to accommodate NBC and its American primetime audience. That was because of Phelps, who made swimming arguably the most must-see Summer Olympic sport (although it's hard to say there's anything more must-see than the men's 100-meter final).
Even 50 more meters in Rio would give swimming another big storyline, not to mention more attention to Lochte and Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky and Nathan Adrian.
You can argue that old legends like Favre and Jordan detract from the growth of younger phenoms, but not in an individual sport like swimming. Phelps' presence is a tide that lifts all boats, just as it did in the months leading up to the 2004 Games, when his training with fellow Americans (including Peter Vanderkaay, Erik Vendt, Allison Schmidt, Davis Tarwater and Kaitlin Sandeno) pushed them all to be faster and being pushed in return.
"I definitely hope he comes back because in a way he pushed me and I pushed him," Lochte said Wednesday. "So it was definitely great for the sport.”
Phelps had a role in Chicago's bid for the 2016 Games, and it's hard to imagine he would have turned down a chance to swim in his home country had the U.S. won over Brazil. So although Phelps consistently said he wouldn't swim past the age of 30, he and coach Bob Bowman – both obsessive planners – surely considered the idea of going four more years.
In a live chat as part of a promotion for the Chicago bid, Phelps was asked what he would be if not a swimmer. "Couch potato,” he said, adding, "I'm extremely lazy when I'm not in the pool.”
After a few months, though, "extremely lazy” gets extremely old. Phelps struggled with idle time after the '04 and '08 Games. To his credit he's avoided controversy in the months following the London Games. Yet most swimmers have a hate-love relationship with the pool: they hate the grueling practices and the awful hours, then they love swimming more than ever when the routine is gone and with it that sense of accomplishment. Golf is fun and relaxing, but sorry, the adrenaline doesn't compare.
For most recently retired swimmers, nothing can be done to quell that urge. The years have added split seconds that can't be won back (unless you're Jason Lezak), but Phelps is still close to his prime. He can still do it. He can inspire a generation of would-be fans who weren't around in 2000 when he first swam an Olympic event, meaning there's a whole lot of young Americans who can still learn to swim because they watched Michael Phelps race.
For someone who said they wanted to change the way Americans view swimming, that alone might be motivation enough.
More comeback stories on Yahoo! Sports:
• Maurice Clarett prepping for one more comeback, but not in the NFL
• NFL draft bust JaMarcus Russell is attempting a comeback
• Mark Prior signs with Reds in comeback bid
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- Michael Phelps
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