(REUTERS) - It was just like old times for Michael Phelps on Friday. The world's most decorated swimmer was on the top of the podium at the Pan Pacific championships, collecting another gold medal after a thrilling race win.
He had just helped the Americans win the 4x200m freestyle relay after a titanic struggle against Japan at Australia's Gold Coast on a rainy winter's night.
For a man who has won a mind-boggling 18 Olympic gold medals, it might normally have seemed like just another day at the office, but not this time.
The importance was not lost on Phelps, who was swimming at his first international meet in two years in an event the Americans have not lost for over a decade. "I think being able to hold that tradition for this long and being able to get back on the podium, it feels amazing," Phelps told reporters. "We all know that by no means is this going to get any easier over the next two years, and I think having a close one like this should propel us into the Worlds next summer, and hopefully on to Rio from there."
Comebacks have invariably been cruel to swimmers and even Phelps has struggled to get near his best but Friday was a good day for the 28-year-old.
Not only did he win a relay gold but he also finished an impressive fourth in the 100m freestyle final despite taking on the world's best sprinters in an event he rarely competed in, even at his peak.
His time of 48.51 was exactly one second outside his best ever time for the blue-riband sprint but was the best sign yet that he is on track to make a big splash at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The final was won by Australia's Cameron McEvoy in 47.82. Behind him was the reigning Olympic champion Nathan Adrian (48.30) and the two-time world champion James Magnussen (48.36). "What more could I ask for?" McEvoy said. "I just felt great the whole way. It was an honour to be in a race with such great men, so much those guys have accomplished. It's just good to be there."
Swimming's new teen queen Katie Ledecky collected her third title in two days of competition by helping the US win the women's 4x200m freestyle relay.
The 17-year-old holds the world record for 400m, 800m and 1500m but is starting to experiment with shorter events.
She won the 800m and 200m on Thursday. And although she found the 100m too short for her liking, finishing 13th overall in Friday morning's heats, she overcame a one-second deficit on the anchor leg to win the relay. "I knew I had to sort of think of it as my individual race and not swim it too fast in the first 100m," Ledecky said. "I don't really know how I did with that, but I knew I had to inch my way up and get my hand on the wall first in the end."
Missy Franklin, still battling the effects of back spasms, also picked up gold in the relay after a disappointing start to the four-day meet.
The Colorado teenager failed to qualify for Thursday's 200m freestyle final and finished third in the 100m backstroke - two of the events she won at last year's world championships - and finished fourth in the 100m freestyle final.
The two-lap sprint was won by Australia's Cate Campbell, who stopped the clock at 52.72, from her younger sister Bronte.
Jessica Hardy won the women's 100m breaststroke for the US while her teammate Elizabeth Beisel easily won the women's 400m individual medley.
The Pan Pacific championships feature the best swimmers from the US, Australia, Japan and Canada, as well as invited competitors from about a dozen other countries, but have added importance for the Americans this time because they double as the trials for next year's world championships in Russia.