By Julian Linden
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Michael Phelps made an ominous start in his comeback to competitive swimming on Thursday, setting the fastest time in the 100 meters butterfly heats at a USA Swimming Grand Prix meet in suburban Phoenix.
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, a relaxed Phelps cruised to victory in 52.84 seconds.
"I actually felt pretty controlled," Phelps said. "I literally was just so excited to get in and race.
"It was fun to get the first race out of the way."
His time was well outside the world record of 49.82 seconds he set at the 2009 world championships but still safely under the qualifying standard for the U.S. 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 when they appeared at a packed news conference on the eve of his comeback but neither has ruled out the possibility of competing at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
"I could tell when he came in and I first saw him warm up that it was going to be good, that he was feeling good and he was into it," Bowman said.
"I'm just glad he came out of the race and he's got one under his belt.
"He's qualified for nationals so let's see what's down the road. He has an opportunity if he wants to take advantage of it."
Unshaven and still 7 pounds (3 kg) over his ideal racing weight, Phelps could not hide his delight as he made his return to the sport that he dominated like no other athlete in history.
But unlike in his previous incarnation when he would arrive at the starting blocks with the glazed look of a prize fighter and music pounding into his ears, Phelps could not have appeared more laidback than he was on Thursday.
Before his race, he talked and laughed with his good friend and rival Ryan Lochte, who was competing in the heat before him, then bounded on the blocks like any school-aged swimmer just eager to get in the pool.
"I'm more relaxed now that I ever was," Phelps said.
"I felt like a summer elite 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.
"I didn't want to wait any more. I didn't want to sit on the massage table any more. I wanted to get this first race done."
Tickets for the event sold out within hours after Phelps confirmed he was making his comeback and were selling for more than five times their face value on the secondary market.
More than 100 media - a 500 percent increase on last year's meet - descended on the Skyline Aquatic Center to see him take his first plunge back into the water.
Even before his race, the crowd lining the warm-up pool was five deep with people trying to snap a picture of him practicing with his kickboard.
When his name was announced for his race, the crowd roared and he returned the favor by uncharacteristically flashing a smile then making a clean getaway when the starter's gun was fired.
Phelps reached the turn in second place then pulled away from his rivals on the second lap, rolling his powerful shoulders over and over to reach the wall first and book his place in Thursday night's final.
He had planned to swim in three events at his comeback meet but ditched the 100m freestyle to focus on the 100m butterfly and Friday's 50m freestyle but said he was just glad to be back at all.
"This is the sport I have known all my entire life and it's the sport I love the most," he said. "When you hear the roar in the stands, it's a pretty amazing feeling.
"I'm just a 28-year-old man stepping up on the blocks and having fun again."
(Reporting by Julian Linden; Editing by Frank Pingue/Steve Keating)