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Of course, it’s a little different when you’re not competing.

“I said to Bob, ‘Man, this takes forever.’ These meets take so long if you’re not swimming,” Phelps said. “Man, it’s so hot on the pool deck. It’s absolutely brutal. It’s a hell of a lot cooler in the water.”

That sort of talk is sure to validate the notion that a Phelps comeback is more a matter of when, not if. His return would surely be welcomed by the entire sport and even those who only follow swimming during the Olympics.

“I don’t think we look at it as bad news,” said Chuck Wielgus, the executive director of USA Swimming. “I want Michael to do whatever he thinks is best for Michael.”

Phelps is the winningest and most decorated athlete in Olympic history. He captured 18 gold medals and 22 medals overall at the last three Summer Games, shattering the previous marks. He is best known for breaking Mark Spitz’s record for a single Olympics by winning eight gold medals in Beijing in 2008.

But his appeal goes far beyond the pool deck. Phelps‘ recognition factor has often matched athletes from far more prominent sports, such as NBA star LeBron James, a truly impressive accomplishment for a swimmer.

Phelps retired at age 27 after winning six more medals at last summer’s London Olympics, adamant that he had no intention of competing again. He had long said his goal was to retire from swimming before he turned 30.

“Sure, I could come back in another four years. But why?” he said last December, after beating out James as the AP’s male athlete of the year. “I’ve done everything I wanted to do. There’s no point in coming back.”

But, as speculation swirled about a possible flip-flop, Phelps softened his stance this past summer. He told the AP during the world championships, “I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

Now, he’s moved even closer to a comeback.

“If I do really start getting excited and wanting to do it, I can make that choice,” Phelps said Thursday. “If not, at least it’s something we can say we were prepared for.”

Phelps will be 31 at the time of the opening ceremony for the Rio Games — not that old, really, for today’s top-flight swimmers, who have more opportunities to cash in on their success and can extend their athletic careers well into their 30s.

Heck, Dara Torres was 41 when she won three silver medals in Beijing.

Phelps doesn’t need the money, of course, having earned tens of millions of dollars in endorsements during his career, and he remains a marketable name, even in retirement. If he does come back, it will likely be another case of an athlete who simply missed the thrill of competition, the day-to-day grind of proving himself against other top swimmers.

After London, Phelps talked longingly about sleeping late and doing what he wanted without dealing with the often-brutal demands of his sport. He opened a chain of swim schools and planned to work more extensively with his foundation, which is devoted to water safety. He had hoped to stoke his fierce competitive side by getting serious about golf, taking part in a television series with famed coach Hank Haney.

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