GOLD COAST, Australia — Michael Phelps got a confronting reminder of just how challenging his return to international competition may be when he was asked whether he was good enough to even reach a final at the Pan Pacific Championships this week.
“Wow, you’re really setting the bar high for me!” the most decorated swimmer of all time joked in reply.
Sitting beside him at a news conference, Phelps’ long-time coach Bob Bowman chipped in: “Reality check there.”
The Pan Pacs start Aug. 21 and run through the weekend. It’s stage two of Phelps’ comeback from retirement — the first was qualifying for the U.S. team.
Now Bowman is predicting Phelps will lower his best times in his butterfly, medley and freestyle, saying the challenge of going faster was the only reason the 18-time Olympic champion came back to the sport.
Phelps qualified by finishing second in the 200-meter medley and the 100 butterfly at the U.S. nationals, and will be swimming in his first international meet since coming out of retirement four months ago with the aim of competing again at the world titles and Olympics.
Only the top two swimmers from each country qualify for the finals, so Phelps is going to be under pressure from his American teammates in the morning preliminaries, and from the best swimmers from Australia, Japan, Canada, Brazil and other Pacific countries in the evening finals.
He’ll start with the 100 freestyle on Aug. 22, which will feature seven Americans in the heats. He’ll also contest the 100 butterfly, the 200 medley and potentially some relays.
Phelps didn’t win any of his four events at the U.S. nationals, although his times in the 200 IM and the butterfly were both among the fastest three in the world this year.
He was unhappy with his freestyle, where his finish let him down. He said it was the kind of mistake an 11-year-old would make.
Phelps, who won eight of his 18 Olympic gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games, said he was “kind of rusty on judging the speed going into my walls,” and described his turns as “awful.”
“Those were the big things that I guess I forgot how to do,” he said. “Not winning, it is what it is — I hate to lose — but I always do understand it’s not going to come back instantly.
“I would rather have those instances now than farther down the road. World championships is next year … Olympics the year after that. Hopefully I’ll be able to fix the things now.”
The U.S. team had a setback ahead of the competition, with Olympic and world champion Missy Franklin in doubt after hurting her back in training.
Team USA spokesman Scott Leightman said Franklin had back spasms during practice Aug. 19. The 19-year-old Franklin was resting at the team hotel after medical staff controlled the spasms and issued a statement later saying she was feeling better with every hour and still hopeful of competing.
Leightman said Franklin, who won both the 100- and 200-meter backstroke at the 2012 Olympics and claimed six golds at the world championships last year, would be re-evaluated before the preliminaries of the 100 backstroke and 200 freestyle on Aug. 22.
The Australian team is primed for a big performance at home after a winning the swimming competition at the recent Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland.
The competition will be held outdoors at the Gold Coast Aquatic Center, site of the 2018 Commonwealth Games swimming, and rain forecast for later in the week is giving swimmers something extra to think about.
Phelps said it would be a novel experience for him. His friend and long-time rival, Ryan Lochte, said he grew up in Florida and was used to competing in rain.
“You have to prepare yourself for the worst-case scenario. The coaches told us about the weather conditions — we’re all prepared for it,” he said.
Lochte and Phelps have long dominated the 200 IM, but aren’t even seeded No. 1 at the Pan Pacs. Japan’s Kosuke Hagino has the fastest time of the year and his teammate Diaya Seto is also a contender.
“It’s no longer just me and Michael. It’s definitely become a bigger event, and bigger race,” Lochte said.
If Franklin is ruled out, more attention on the U.S. women’s team will center on 17-year-old Katie Ledecky, who broke the 400 freestyle world record at the nationals and now holds world marks in the 400, 800 and 1,500.
“I can improve. I got some good work in after nationals. I’m really excited to see what I can do here,” Ledecky said.
(JOHN PYE, AP Sports Writer)