NELL REDMOND/AP file photoMichael Phelps

NELL REDMOND/AP file photoMichael Phelps

Back in pool, Phelps is eager for new challenge

SANTA CLARA — Michael Phelps returned to swimming on his own terms. His ultimate goal obviously is to compete in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, though he's being coy about it.

The 18-time Olympic champion said Thursday that he's focused on this weekend's Santa Clara Grand Prix, where he is entered in the 100-meter freestyle and 100 butterfly today, the 200 freestyle Saturday and the 200 individual medley Sunday.

“I'd like to see where I am at the end of this meet,” Phelps said. “I hope to get out with some positive swims that will help me move forward to the nationals.”

Santa Clara represents the final major event before the U.S. nationals in August when swimmers will qualify for the 2015 world championships.

“I'm a goal-oriented person,” said Phelps, who will turn 29 at the end of the month. “You guys won't know until it happens. I let my swimming do the talking.”

The meet is his third since ending his retirement two months ago and, possibly, his most ambitious. He swam in two events in each of his past two meets.

Coach Bob Bowman said Phelps would be competitive if he decides to give it a go in the Olympics.

“He's good enough,” Bowman said. “Instead of a four-year plan, we're on a four-hour plan. We'll see how he holds up after this meet.”

Even after winning a record 22 Olympic medals, Phelps had difficultly staying away from a sport that has been part of his life for 22 years.

“There is a challenge in everything I do,” Phelps said. “There are things unfinished and things I want to accomplish. At this point it really is about having fun. It's great to get into the pool with a group of world class swimmers.”

In his first two meets of the Grand Prix series, Phelps swam 52.13 in the 100 butterfly to finish second in Mesa and first in Charlotte. His world record is 49.82.

“It's great to see him just enjoying it,” Bowman said. “When I first met him he wasn't famous. He was just a little kid who loved swimming. He could do it quite well for whatever reason. He's kind of like that now. There's a joy in what he's doing and that's fun for me.”

Other than having to wake up so early, Phelps considers this the happiest time of his professional life.

“As much as I said I can't wait to be done, that's a lie,” he said. “Something keeps drawing me back in the water. This sport afforded me so many things that I will never give up on changing it.”

Phelps would like to see continued growth in the support of swimming and in making it safer for children.

“More kids need to be water-safe,” he said. “We're losing too many kids to drowning incidents. This is an amazing sport and people should come out and support us.”

Natalie Coughlin, a 12-time Olympic medalist, and Missy Franklin, who has four gold medals and just completed her freshman season at Cal, also are entered. Other multi-medal winners competing include Matt Grevers, Nathan Adrian, Allison Schmitt and France's Yannick Agnel.

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