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With Phelps jumping back in the pool, a look at the best and worst comeback attempts

Michael Phelps came out of retirement to go for a try at a fourth Olympic Games. How does his comeback attempt compare to some of other high-profile returns in sport history?

Michael Phelps practices for the Arena Grand Prix in Mesa, Arizona, USA on Wednesday. Christian Petersen / Getty Images / AFP / April 23, 2014
Michael Phelps practices for the Arena Grand Prix in Mesa, Arizona, USA on Wednesday. Christian Petersen / Getty Images / AFP / April 23, 2014

The comeback is one of the best stories in sports. A great, for whatever reason, has to leave the game. Great returns.

After that, the story can take any number of turns.

There’s Michael Jordan, for instance, who managed both a good and bad comeback. After his baseball sojourn in the mid-90s, he came back to the Chicago Bulls and won three straight titles before retiring again in 1998, most presumed for good.

It was not for good. He returned to play with the Washington Wizards from 2001-2003, a stretch in which Jordan actually, many now forget, played quite well. But he wasn’t Jordan anymore, and his second comeback is widely considered unfortunate these days.

Niki Lauda made two returns to Formula One, as well. One after his infamous German Grand Prix accident, and another after his 1979 retirement. He won a title during both comeback attempts.

Then there’s the kind of comeback like Baltimore Orioles Hall-of-Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, who tried to get back into baseball seven years after his 1984 retirement in 1991 at the age of 45. It lasted two spring training innings.

As decorated Olympian Michael Phelps makes his own attempt to get back into the pool and prepare for a fourth Games, Reuters takes a look at some of good – and not good – comebacks in sporting history.

Niki Lauda

Lauda won his first Formula One world championship in 1975. In 1976, he nearly died from the horrific burns he suffered in a crash at the German Grand Prix that left him scarred for life. A year later he won a second world title before quitting the sport in 1979. Three years later, the Austrian was persuaded to make a comeback and in 1984 he won a third world championship.

George Foreman

Foreman was one of the most fearsome heavyweight boxers of all time. The American won his first world title in 1973 when he stopped Joe Frazier in two rounds. Foreman held the belt for two years before losing to Muhammad Ali in the “Rumble in the Jungle” before calling it quits in 1977 to become a preacher. A decade later, Foreman came out of retirement and in 1994 he knocked out Michael Moorer to reclaim the world heavyweight title at age 45, the oldest champion ever.

Michael Jordan

Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to three consecutive NBA titles between 1991 and 1993 before shocking the basketball world by announcing he was quitting to try his hand at baseball. After two fruitless seasons in the minor league, the American announced his return to the NBA in a two-word statement: “I’m back.” He led Chicago to another three straight titles between 1996 and 1998.

Margaret Court

Having retired after Wimbledon in 1966, Court returned to tennis in 1968. Over the next nine years, despite taking time off to have three children, the Australian proceeded to add 11 grand slam singles and 17 grand slam doubles titles to her already considerable tally. In 1970, she won the singles titles at all four majors, one of only three women to have completed a calendar year grand slam.

Mario Lemieux

Lemieux was already one of Canada’s greatest ice hockey players before he was forced to retire in 1997 when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He had won Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and 1992 and been named the National Hockey League’s Most Valuable Player three times. In 2000, he made a comeback, and two years later captained Canada to their first Olympic gold in men’s ice hockey in 50 years.

Bjorn Borg

With his long hair and wooden racket, Borg was a tennis icon in the 1970s and 1980s. He won six French Open titles and five straight Wimbledon titles before stunning the sports world by quitting in 1983 at the age of 26. After eight years, the charismatic Swede announced a comeback, returning with the same hairstyle and equipment even though the new breed were sporting cropped hair and using graphite rackets. Borg played in a dozen tournaments but failed to win a single match before conceding defeat in 1993 and joining the senior tour.

Ben Johnson

Johnson seemed to have the world at his feet when he broke his own world record for the 100 metre sprint to win the gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics before his world came crashing down. The Canadian sprinter tested positive for steroids, was banned for two years and stripped of his medal. In 1991, Johnson made a comeback. He qualified for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics but failed to make the final after finishing last in his semi. In 1993, he failed a second drugs test and was banned for life.

Muhammad Ali

Ali won his first heavyweight world title in 1964, aged 22, when he defeated Sonny Liston. In 1967, Ali was stripped of his belt after refusing to be conscripted into the U.S. military for the Vietnam war. In 1974, he regained the heavyweight title when he beat Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” then won the championship for a third time in 1978, after avenging a loss to Leon Spinks, before retiring. In 1980, Ali made a comeback at age 38 but was not the same fighter as before. He lost successive fights to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick before quitting for good.

Michael Schumacher

The German won his first two Formula One drivers’ championships with Benetton in 1994 and 1995 before switching to Ferrari. Between 2000 and 2004, Schumacher won five successive championships and set numerous records, including most overall titles (7), most race wins (91) and most pole positions (68). He retired after the 2006 season but made a comeback with Mercedes in 2010. In three seasons with Mercedes, he failed to win a single race and his best finish was eighth in the championship.

Mark Spitz

Before Phelps shattered all his records, Spitz was the benchmark for Olympic success. The American swimmer won two relay gold medals at Mexico City in 1968 before scooping an incredible seven more golds - all in world record time - at Munich in 1972. He retired at the peak of his powers but decided to make a comeback in 1992, at age 41, to try and make the Barcelona Olympics. But despite swimming close to his best times, the sport had evolved so much that he was two seconds behind the qualifying times and didn’t make the team so he quit a second time.

Jim Palmer

The Hall-of-Fame baseball pitcher won 268 games and registered 2,212 strikeouts from his debut at 19 years old in 1965 to his retirement at 38 in 1984, all with the Baltimore Orioles.

Inexplicably, the right-hander decided he was going to have one more go at the big leagues ... in 1991, at the age of 45 and seven years after he had last thrown a professional pitch. Palmer made it into one spring training game with Baltimore and threw two innings before he went back into retirement.

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