It's good to hear Michael Phelps is getting back in the pool, but I'm a little disappointed at his announcement Monday. I was hoping Phelps was going to say he and Brett Favre were pairing up to compete in synchronized swimming at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Or Phelps and Andy Pettitte. Or Phelps and Michael Jordan. Or Phelps and any of the many great athletes who are unable to stick to their initial retirement plans.
This is not meant as criticism of his comeback. Far from it. I applaud athletes for competing as long as they can.
Retirement holds considerable appeal for the majority of us normal workers because it comes at an age when we are tired of scraping ice off our windshields on winter mornings so we can fight our way through thick rush-hour traffic to sit in a cubicle and watch the clock all day in a job we don't particularly enjoy. We would much rather be able to stay home and watch young athletes compete on TV or go see them in person at stadiums.
Retirement is much different for athletes. They are still young and love what they do (they wouldn't be very good at their sport if they didn't). Retirement doesn't mean an end to decades of work when the body and mind simply want to rest; retirement means they can never compete again in a sport they love so much.
"Athletes do miss it," four-time Olympic gold medalist Janet Evans told ESPN.com on Monday. "You get up to train, you compete -- it's all we know. It's never surprised me when an athlete leaves a sport and then after 12 months comes back. Actually, it surprised me when Michael announced his retirement after London [Olympics in 2012]. I expected him to say he was going to take some time and think things over, which is really what he did."
Evans won three gold medals at age 17 at the 1988 Olympics and added a gold and silver at the 1992 Games. She did not medal in 1996 and decided to retire and pursue other aspects in her life. Not that retiring was easy, even though she wasn't at the top of her sport when she left.
"You think, 'What do I do now?'" she said. "'What do I do at 3 o'clock each day when I was supposed to go to pool? What will I do now?' It's hard."
Phelps turns 29 in June and will be 31 by the 2016 Olympics, which is relatively old in swimming but not ancient. Dara Torres medaled at 41 in 2008 and nearly qualified for the 2012 Olympics at 45. Gary Hall Jr. won a gold medal just a month shy of his 30th birthday at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and tried to qualify for the 2008 Games at age 33. Heck, Ryan Lochte is a year older than Phelps and is still competing; he will swim at next week's Grand Prix meet in Mesa, Ariz., along with Phelps.
Even Mark Spitz attempted a comeback at age 40, almost two decades after winning seven Olympic gold medals in Munich in 1972.
So it's not a crazy notion for Phelps to come back. Clearly, the sport still holds an allure, and the competitive urge that helped him lock up 22 Olympic medals still burns. And he isn't good enough in golf -- at least not yet -- to compete in that sport at the 2016 Games in Rio.
"You have the rest of your life to do whatever you want, so why not?" Evans said of Phelps' return. "We have this talent, and if you can still deal with the rigors and training, why not? ... So of course he's going to swim again. He can, and I don't see why he wouldn't.
"He could probably still be at the top of his game and still swim well at Rio."
How well will he do? That remains to be seen. He has been training since the fall but will stick to shorter distances and just three events in Mesa (50- and 100-meter freestyles and 100 butterfly) because he is not close to his usual Olympic fitness. How he fares in the water at next weekend's meet -- plus the two other upcoming Grand Prix events he has entered -- will not mean as much as how he feels.
Phelps' return will distract from other deserving swimmers, but we would pay less attention to them if he wasn't in the pool. So it will bring a welcome response to a sport we generally watch only every four years. And even if the other swimmers get tired of answering questions about Phelps, there is also the possibility that they might be able to say they beat him in a race.
"I think it's good for the sport," Evans said. "I would like to see U.S. swimming find another Michael Phelps, but I think this is good. It raises the game for the other competitors, and I think it will inspire young kids for another four years."
And maybe longer. After all, Evans returned to competitive swimming in the Masters program at age 39 and competed at the 2012 Olympic trials.