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If Michael Phelps decides to return, it'll be fueled by competitive fire, not Olympic legacy

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports

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Michael Phelps waves to the crowd last month at an NBA preseason game in China. (AP Photo)

The sportswriter looks at a potential Michael Phelps comeback and asks, "Why?"

Why rewrite the perfect ending, which Phelps achieved in London in 2012? Why sully the greatest Olympic legacy ever by staying too long? Why risk the hard, humbling tumble from dominant to dominated?

Time, after all, is undefeated. The hard part for innumerable athletes is knowing when it's going to beat you.

The competitor looks at it a different way.

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Michael Phelps gets in a swim during his visit to Rio de Janeiro in March. (AP Photo)

The competitor is less consumed with legacy than with feeding the beast. When you have lived your life pushing against the ceiling of excellence, what do you do when the ceiling is gone and there's nothing left to push? Where, in life outside the arena, is the remotely comparable challenge and remotely comparable thrill?

To the competitor, the day of reckoning is never today, always tomorrow. There is always one more chance to rekindle the glory.

As one member of the Phelps camp put it, "If he can still play, why tell Mozart to stop being Mozart?"

So there are two ways to look at the possibility of a fifth and final (no, really) Olympics for the greatest swimmer in the history of the planet. From the outside, it would seem fraught with risk and likely to end badly, in addition to further delaying the next generation of American swimmers its chance to shine. From the inside – Phelps and his tight circle of family, friends, coach and advisers – it may look totally different.

Of course, a Phelps bid to make the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro is not a done deal at this point. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency acknowledged Thursday that Phelps has re-entered its drug-testing pool, which is the first step on the road to a comeback. In order to compete on an international level, a swimmer must have been in the testing pool for a minimum of nine months.

Phelps was unavailable Friday. But his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, told me there is no comeback plan in place at this point. Nothing is decided. Re-entering the testing pool merely keeps open the option to compete again, and doing so at this time makes it possible for Phelps to enter the major meets in the spring and summer of 2014.

But Bowman remains bullish on Phelps' staying power. "I believe Michael could compete at whatever level he chooses to compete," Bowman said from the Minneapolis Grand Prix meet, where Phelps dropped in Thursday as a celebrity visitor but not a competitor.

Phelps recently returned to the pool, trying to keep it quiet. The stated reason was for "fitness," but that's like Tiger Woods playing an emergency nine at the local muni – he's not wired for that. If Phelps is in the water, he's not just splashing around and raising his heart rate a little.

And the word is that Phelps has been a workout regular. So far, at least, this is not the crisis of commitment he encountered between the masterpiece of 2008 (eight gold medals) and the admirably accomplished follow-up of 2012 (four golds, two silvers).

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Michael Phelps, left, and coach Bob Bowman during a training session in 2007. (AP Photo)

Then, the training was a forced obligation – something to be dreaded more than embraced. Now, according to those in the know, Phelps is a more willing worker because this is what he wants to do. Not what he has to do.

Bowman does not look at the idea of a 31-year-old Phelps in 2016 and see Willie Mays stumbling after fly balls in a Mets uniform. He doesn't see Michael Jordan stubbornly fading away as a Washington Wizard. He doesn't see Ed Reed wandering from Baltimore to Houston to New York, incapable of jaw-dropping defensive plays but also incapable of walking away.

He sees a guy who can add to his record totals of 18 Olympic gold medals and 22 overall Olympic medals.

Maybe Bowman is right. He knows Phelps better than anybody, knows what he's capable of, and knows what the competition will look like three years from now.

He also knows the insatiable competitor within Phelps. It would burn Phelps to his core to come back and get embarrassed by swimmers who will never even approach his high points.

So don't expect to see the chlorine GOAT advance any potential comeback to the Olympic Trials in Omaha in '16 if he hasn't already demonstrated an ability to compete at the highest level. This won't be Janet Evans 2012, out there getting lapped in a preliminary heat.

Still, it is impossible to expect Phelps to come close to his '08 apex, and unlikely that he could approximate his '12 encore. The scope of any comeback would have to be narrowed, in an inevitable acknowledgement of the body's limits.

That would be up to the competitor in Phelps to deal with.

And it would be up to the sportswriter (and others) to deal with a comeback that complicates the perfect ending. Not everyone gets to walk out on top. And not everyone wants to, either.

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