By Julian Linden
PHOENIX (Reuters) - On the first day of his comeback to competitive swimming, Michael Phelps got a first-hand look at the new wave of super competitors he helped inspire.
Standing on the pool deck preparing to warm up for his plunge back into the water, Phelps was approached by Michael Andrew, the teenager who has been dubbed the next big thing in American swimming.
Phelps had already heard all about Andrew because he has been demolishing American national age-group (NAG) records at an alarming rate, but he was taken aback by his first meeting with him.
Just two weeks after he turned 15, Andrew is already 6ft 5in tall (1.96 meter), an inch taller than Phelps, and still growing.
With hands the size of saucers and feet that look flippers, he has all the physical attributes of an elite swimmer and Phelps was naturally intrigued.
"I'd like to try and watch him race a little but more. I didn't get the chance to do that this weekend," he said.
"But the kid's massive, he's huge. He's like the same size as I am but bigger and I guess that having height is a very good thing for a swimmer."
Phelps, wary of putting too much pressure on the teenager, said Andrew needed time and space to develop and he was looking forward to watching how he progresses when he switched from short-course (25-yard pools) to long-course (50-metre pools).
"Obviously, the kid's a talented swimmer, he's broken countless NAG records so I'm excited to see how he can transition into long course," Phelps said.
While the inevitable comparisons with Phelps are largely a futile exercise because no one in any Olympic sport has come close to matching his record of 18 gold medals, Andrew is already turning heads in the United States.
He turned pro when he was 14 - a year younger than Phelps was - and has already lost count of the number of national age group records he has broken under the guidance of his father and coach Peter.
On Friday, he spoke with reporters during the USA Swimming Grand Prix in suburban Phoenix on Friday.
Towering over the gathered media, he said: "Coming into this season, we kind of made some predictions that it'd be cool to break 40 national records, But we ended up going 44 or something like that.
"It's been a blessing, an amazing season, really."
Like a lot of swimmers his age, Andrew was inspired by Phelps. He watched in awe as he racked up his Olympic gold medals and once had his photograph taken with him.
Andrew said he was giddy at the thought of meeting Phelps then flattered to be mentioned alongside him.
Instead of trying to emulate anything Phelps did, Andrew has his own dreams, starting with making the U.S. team for this year's Youth Olympics in Nanjing, China.
"That is a goal I feel is going to happen. I really hope it does," he said.
"Then my next goal will be Rio in 2016. It's a tall order and it's going to be tough to make it because I'll only be 17 by then but I believe in myself. I've done crazier things."
Unlike Phelps, who focused mainly on middle-distance events, Andrew focuses on sprinting, but in all four strokes and says he is happy just to be part of the new generation.
"There comes a time when some of the older swimmers will end up stopping and retiring so we, as the younger new generation, have to come up and make it stronger," he said.
"I know there's a lot of strong age group phenoms that are coming up and I'm excited to be a part of it."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)