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Michael Phelps finishes second, but wins hearts

Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps, in Mesa, on Thursday

Mesa: Michael Phelps suffered a narrow loss to his old rival Ryan Lochte in his comeback to competitive swimming on Thursday, but still showed enough to suggest he will be a force to be reckoned with.

Racing for the first time since he retired in a blaze of glory after the 2012 London Olympics with a staggering career total of 18 gold medals, Phelps easily won his heat in the 100 metres butterfly then finished runner-up to Lochte in a close final. Lochte touched the wall first in 51.93 seconds with Phelps just behind in 52.13.

Unsurprisingly after being out of the water for so long, Phelps was not at his sharpest. Of the eight finalists, he was the slowest to get off the blocks then mistimed his touch on the first wall but said he was happy with his return.

“I never like to lose but I did what I wanted to do, I wanted to be around 1:52,” Phelps said. “Apart from what was literally the worst turn of my career, I think I did pretty well. It was fun.”

Phelps’ time was well outside the world record of 49.82 he set at the 2009 world championships but still safely under the qualifying standard for the US national championships in August, which double as the selection event for next year’s world titles in Russia.

Although the 28-year-old still holds the world record in three individual events, none of his past times count for future competitions because they were recorded before the qualifying period began in June 2013. The last time Phelps needed to post a time to qualify for the national was when he was 13. Phelps and his coach Bob Bowman were both reluctant to talk about their long-term goals but neither has ruled out the possibility of competing at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Unshaven and still 7 pounds (3 kg) over his ideal racing weight, Phelps was a model of composure in the morning heats, chatting and joking with his competitors and uncharacteristically smiling to the crowds that included his mother.

But he looked more like his previous incarnation when he arrived for the evening final, climbing the starting blocks with the glazed look of a prize fighter determined to win. “I felt like a summer league swimmer today. I was just so excited. I felt like I should have my lane and heat written on my hand in case I forget it,” he said.

Tickets for the event sold out within hours after Phelps confirmed he was making his comeback and were selling for more than six times their face value on the secondary market.