Michael Phelps took his first step toward competing in his fifth Olympics by rejoining the U.S. drug-testing program, a move that paves the way for him to compete in the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
The 22-time Olympic medalist underwent drug testing. According to the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) website, Phelps was drug-tested twice between July 1 and Sept.30 of this year. His coach, Bob Bowman, said that Phelps actually re-joined the testing pool late in the second quarter, meaning Phelps would be eligible to compete in meets again as early as March 2014.
FINA, the world governing body for swimming, requires athletes to be drug-tested for at least nine months before taking part in FINA-sanctioned events.
By subjecting himself to testing, Phelps has set himself up for a return to competition next spring and possibly an appearance at the 2014 U.S. national championships. He'd also have plenty of time to get in shape by the 2015 world championships in Russia, a meet which will serve as a tune-up to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics the following summer.
Though all signs point toward Phelps returning to swimming so he can compete in Rio, his coach cautions patience.
"It's premature to say that," Bowman told USA TODAY Sports by phone Thursday afternoon. "What we're doing is kind of letting him have his options. He came back this fall and started to do some training with the group, mainly just to get in shape. He just felt like he was not fit. He wasn't.
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"He's occasionally been training. He's picked it up a little more. We were just thinking about it, and I said, 'You know, you're getting in pretty good shape, maybe you want to swim in a meet?' He said, 'Well, maybe at some point.' "
Bowman said Phelps rejoined the testing pool in the second quarter, which means he's already made some progress on the nine-month waiting period. "He has a little more time than people probably already think," Bowman said.
Phelps, who has won 18 gold medals and 22 overall, is the winningest and most decorated athlete in Olympic history. He is best known for breaking Mark Spitz's record by winning eight gold medals in a single Games (Beijing in 2008).
In June, a teammate and rival of Phelps predicted the comeback.
"I think we all know by now that he's coming back," Ryan Lochte told reporters at the world championship trials. "I don't think it's really a surprise. It's just a matter of when is he going to get back in the full swing of training."
It appears that time is now.
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"We don't have anything picked out, we don't have anything planned," Bowman said. "I don't think we have designs on Rio at this time, but I want to give him a chance to get back into competition if he'd like to."
Bowman said Phelps' training has increased from 2-3 times a week to 4-5 times a week.
"If we can get him up to 10 times a week, that's when I'd be comfortable with him swimming in a meet," Bowman said. "When Michael swims in a meet, there's a certain expectation. We are far from there right now, so that's why I'd like to caution everyone to keep expectations a little lower until you see him in a meet. … Right now, he's pretty far from being ready to swim in a meet, in my opinion."
When asked if it was simply an itch Phelps felt to get back into swimming, Bowman laughed.
"I think it was first off an itch to get fit," he said. "I don't think he liked how he felt. Golf just doesn't give you the same kind of fitness level. It's probably more fun sometimes – maybe all the time."