Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, announced earlier this month that he was returning to competitive swimming. Phelps had retired following a six-medal performance at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman, aren’t saying whether he’s gearing up for another run at the Olympics, but it’s hard not to speculate about one of the best athlete returning to competition.
Phelps will make it to Rio de Janeiro in 2016. But if he represents the US for a fifth time—he would be 31—how might he perform? Putting aside conditioning concerns— Phelps only swam occasionally in the year following his retirement, though he is reportedly now working out with Bowman five days a week—the spectre of age looms large.
Thirty-one is ancient for an Olympic swimmer. Since 1968, only 17 athletes 31 and older have participated in any of the individual events Phelps would probably attempt (100 and 200-metre butterfly; 200-metre freestyle; and 200 and 400-metre individual medley). The average age of medallists in those events was 21.4.
Of course, Phelps isn’t the typical Olympic swimmer. At his peak, the 2008 Games, he set the world record in four of the five individual events (he had to settle for just an Olympic record in the 100m butterfly; he broke the world record in that event in 2009).
So, in 2016, Phelps might be a shadow of his former self, but even a diminished version of history’s best swimmer could be a force to be reckoned with. In the 2012 Olympics, Phelps took individual gold medals in the 100m butterfly and the 200m medley, and grabbed silver in the 200m butterfly.