Arizona: No one watched Michael Phelps`s return to competition this week with a keener eye than Michael Andrew, the 15-year-old already tipped as the Olympic swimming legend`s likely successor.
"With him being back at this meet, it`s really exciting because I have a chance to swim with him," said Andrew, who was born in 1999, the year before Phelps qualified for his first Olympic team at the age of 15 in 2000.
Andrew, already an imposing 6 feet 5 inches (1.96m), has stormed through the youth ranks of US swimming, toppling a raft of national age group records -- many of them once held by Phelps.
He turned professional at 14, a year younger than Phelps did, and handles himself with all the aplomb of an older athlete.
"Coming into this season, we kind of made some predictions that it`d be cool to break 40 national (age-group) records," he said Saturday at the Mesa Grand Prix in suburban Phoenix, Arizona.
"But we ended up going 44 or something like that. It`s been a blessing, an amazing season, really."
Andrew`s composure cracked just a bit when told that Phelps had remarked on his talent.
"It`s an honor," said the youngster, who like so many American swimmers his age was inspired by Phelps`s remarkable exploits: 22 Olympic medals, 18 of them gold, not to mention that glittering eight-gold haul in the 2008 Beijing Games.
"He`s the greatest of all time, and there`s really no comparison," said Andrew, who spotted Phelps at the warmup pool on the eve of the meeting on Wednesday and introduced himself.
"I`d like to try and watch him race a little bit more," said Phelps, who ended a 20-month retirement in Mesa with a runner-up finish to Ryan Lochte in the 100m butterfly on Thursday. "I didn`t get the chance to do that this weekend.
"Obviously, the kid`s a talented swimmer," Phelps said, adding that he`s "excited" to see how Andrew will make the transition from the short-course yards racing prevalent in US youth swimming to 50m long-course racing.
It`s an adjustment that Andrew knows he must conquer to become a force on the international stage.
In the short term he`s targeting the Youth Olympics in Nanjing, China, in August, but further ahead he`s unabashedly aiming for the 2016 Rio Games.
"It`s a tall order and it`s going to be tough to make it," he said of making a US Olympic swimming team in two years. "I`ll be 17 by then, but I believe in myself. I`ve done crazier things."
Andrew is perhaps one of the reasons Phelps`s coach Bob Bowman isn`t worried that US swimming is stagnating, despite the continued prominence of veterans such as Lochte and -- now that he`s back in competition -- Phelps.
"There are a lot of good young kids that haven`t made the jump to the very top level," Bowman said. "They`ve made the jump to the level right under them, and there`s a lot of them."
For all his admiration for Phelps, Andrew says he won`t hesitate to seize his own chance.
"There comes a time when some of the older swimmers are going to end up stopping and retiring, they`ll be gone," he said. "We as a new generation have to come up and make it stronger.
"I`m excited to be part of it."