IRVINE, Calif. -- Michael Phelps has always fed off adversity. Not that the most decorated Olympian has faced much in the pool.
Phelps lost all four of his races at the recent U.S. national championships. Hardly shocking for a guy who is four months out of retirement, but somewhat surprising for someone who already owns 53 national titles.
Phelps, though, is focused on his long-term goal of competing in a fifth Olympics in 2016.
"I'd rather lose all the national championships that I swim in as long as I'm ready for the big races," he said after the meet in Southern California.
He'll get a taste of some big races during next week's Pan Pacific Championships in Australia. Phelps qualified in the 100-meter butterfly and 200 individual medley. The combined results from nationals and Pan Pacs, featuring the U.S., Australia, Japan, Canada and Brazil, decide the U.S. team for next year's world championships.
Phelps headed Down Under knowing that if he wants to win in Rio de Janeiro, he's got to once again commit to staring at the black line on the bottom of a pool. Those hours of training helped drive him into retirement two years ago.
"I have no choice," he said. "If I want to be where I want to be, I know what I have to do. With having a year and a half off and maybe not really going as hard as I probably should have at some of the parts during the year, it shows."
At 29, Phelps came to that realization on his own rather than needing the usual prodding from coach Bob Bowman or his mother.
"That's kind of what I've learned in this whole process over the last year and a half," he said. "I'm going to have to do it because I want to. That's the reason I'm here and that's the reason I'm swimming again."
His California losses included two second-place finishes, but his times were encouraging. He swam 51.30 seconds in the 100 butterfly and 1 minute, 56.55 seconds in the 200 IM. Both were third-fastest in the world this year.
"He just needs to go home and put in some more practices," Bowman said. "He gets better every day. He's got some confidence now."
Phelps arrives at practices in Baltimore with a smile on his face, making training more fun for him and Bowman, who now oversees a larger stable of U.S. and foreign talent than he did during Phelps' drive to win a historic eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics.
"He's done everything we've asked him to do," Bowman said.
Then again, the coach says, "We haven't asked him to do that much."
That will change upon Phelps' return home later this month. He has a year to prepare for the 2015 worlds in Russia, the biggest international meet leading up to the Rio Games.
Ryan Lochte, Phelps' 30-year-old rival, finds himself in a similar position. He beat Phelps to win the 200 IM at nationals, his lone victory of the meet.
Lochte has endured an up-and-down period since he injured his left knee last fall when a young fan ran at him and he tried to catch her.
He had surgery and worked to strengthen his knee on dry land while changing coaches and training cities. In April, he reinjured the knee during a race, and he was told to back off or risk more serious consequences.
"There's always a bump in the road for me," Lochte said. "This year has been the hardest year I've ever had in my entire life. I'm getting older; my body is not getting any younger. There was a lot of doubt of ever being the same swimmer."
Now that his knee is fully recovered, Lochte is focused on swimming multiple events the next two years. Phelps has reduced his program to four individual races.
"I guarantee you we'll be faster and better in the next two years," Lochte vowed.