By Sharon Robb

April 23, 2014

Three-time Jamaican Olympian Alia Atkinson of South Florida Aquatic Club will compete against the nation’s best in the Arena Grand Prix at the Skyline Aquatic Center in Mesa, Arizona.

The fourth stop of the Arena Grand Prix Series gets under way on Thursday with a star-studded field of more than 500 swimmers that features 27 Olympic medalists from seven countries who have combined to win 97 medals. Nearly 50 members of the U.S. national team are in the field.

It also marks the return of superstar and 22-time Olympic medalist Michael Phelps who returns to the pool nearly two years after “retiring” from competitive swimming and two months shy of his 29th birthday.

Atkinson, 25, who recently signed with Speedo, heads Florida’s talented contingent for the three-day meet.

Atkinson is seeded sixth in Thursday’s 200-meter breaststroke in 2:28.77 behind Micah Lawrence (2:21.74), Breeja Larson (2:23.44), Laura Sogar (2:24.86), Caitlin Leverenz (2:26.46) and Rachel Nicol (2:28.09). She is also seeded 26th in the 100-meter butterfly (1:02.52), also on Thursday.

Atkinson is coming off the March 23-24 Speedo Long Course Championships and March 28-30 Senior Short Course Championships, where she dominated both South Florida meets.

Atkinson will be joined by SOFLO teammate Olivia Katcher. Katcher, 18, will compete in Thursday’s 400-meter freestyle (4:23.02) and 100-meter butterfly (1:06.11).

Among other Florida swimmers competing are recently-engaged Katie Hoff, 24, of Hurricane Aquatics, also making a comeback after taking much of 2013 off to focus on school; Clara Smiddy, 18, of AquaKids Sharks; Ryan Lochte, 29, of SwimMAC; Andreina Pinto, 22, of Gator Swim Club; Amanda Kendall, 23, and Elise Haan, 16, of T2 Aquatics; Joshua Romany, 18, and Luis Martinez, 18, Azura Florida Aquatics.

Thursday’s events are the women’s and men’s 100-meter freestyle, women’s and men’s 200-meter breaststroke, women’s and men’s 400-meter freestyle, women’s and men’s 100-meter butterfly and women’s and men’s 400-meter freestyle relay.

The Grand Prix Series offers $150,000 in total prize money, $25,000 per stop during its six-meet schedule. The top three finishers in each event earn $500 for first, $300 for second and $100 for third along with grand prix points. The top male and female point earners will win a one-year lease on a BMW.

The meet will be live-streamed at usaswimming.org at noon EST with the prelims and 8 p.m. EST with the finals. Universal Sports Network will air live coverage of the meet on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. It will also interrupt regularly scheduled programming on Thursday to show unprecedented live coverage of Phelps in his first race. Live updates are expected to show his 100 butterfly prelims race about 3 p.m. EST.

PHELPS MEETS THE PRESS

Before 22-time Olympic medalist Michael Phelps conducted his first swim press conference nearly two years after retiring from swimming, he announced Wednesday that he was scratching from the 100-meter freestyle and would swim only two events with the 100-meter butterfly on Thursday and 50-meter freestyle on Friday when he and young phenom Michael Andrew will swim side-by-side in prelims. Phelps had been the youngest known American swimmer to turn pro before Andrew announced he was going pro last year.

Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all-time with 18 gold medals, has not raced since the 2012 London Olympics.

He quietly resumed training last autumn with his coach Bob Bowman at North Baltimore Aquatic Club. He also trained for three weeks at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

Phelps is expected to compete in the U.S. national championships in August which is serving as the 2015 World Championship Trials.

Phelps looked fit and happy as he and Bowman addressed a small group of media on Wednesday afternoon.

“Being able to do nothing for a year-and-a-half to two years, I had a lot of fun,” Phelps said. “I travelled, played golf and gained 30 pounds. I had a lot of fun but there was something I missed.”

And that something was swimming.

“Being back in the pool (at North Baltimore) was incredible, especially some of the talent we have there. I missed being back in the water. I am looking forward to being back in this environment.”

Phelps, whose 12-year sponsorship with Speedo ended this week, said no one is forcing him to return to the sport. Phelps trained in Mesa on Wednesday in an Arena suit.

“I am doing this because I want to,” Phelps said. “I haven’t signed any contracts. No one is forcing me. I am having fun. Whether I am in the pool or in the stands (at the 2016 Rio Olympics), I guess time will tell.”

Phelps isn’t expecting to break at world records in Mesa.

“My expectations are to race and being able to get back into that mentality of competition,” he said. “I am looking forward to experiencing tomorrow morning.”

Phelps said he dropped the 30 pounds and currently weighs about 194 pounds.

“I had to get back into shape, that was the No. 1 thing,” Phelps said. Added Bowman, “It was a process, it is a process.”

Phelps said he hopes to continue to play golf in the future.

“Golf will always be there,” Phelps said. “I obviously have a lot of passion for swimming. Golf is something I will be able to do the rest of my life. There is still a lot of work to be done in golf.

“I am doing this now because I want to. I am doing this for me. I am more relaxed now than I was. I am smiling, I am happy. Bob and I can do anything when we put our minds to it.”

The press conference was live-streamed on usaswimming.org.

Sharon Robb can be reached at sha11cats@aol.com

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