Before he coulddive into the pool at the UltraSwim meet in Charlotte last Friday morning,Michael Phelps had to skip over TV wires, nudge himself between two cameramenwho were arguing about their positioning and navigate the swarm of fellowcompetitors who had lined the overcrowded pool deck of the Mecklenberg CountyAquatic Center just to watch him swim a morning heat. Five minutes later thefrenzied anticipation of his return to racing behind him—and his place in the200-meter freestyle that night assured—Phelps stood in an adjacent room andpronounced himself, "Relaxed ... at peace ... home."
Yes, home. ForPhelps, the pool's competitive crucible is more like the recliner by thefireplace. It is the one place where nobody grills him about how he's driving,who he's dating or what he's inhaling. To him, the water is the place withoutthe sharks, the air outside the fishbowl. "This is my element," saysPhelps. "This is my comfort zone."
In his firstcompetition since the Beijing Olympics, where he racked up a record eight goldmedals, Phelps last weekend won two of four events, debuted a new freestyletechnique and reaffirmed that a damning photo had not diminished his fanappeal. "I had no idea what kind of shape I'd be in here," said Phelps,who has dropped 17 pounds since January to get back to his racing weight of200. "As a starting point, it feels pretty good."
Despite havingonly 38 minutes between finals last Friday night, Phelps won the 200 free in1:46.02, 3.06 seconds off his world record, and then the 100 butterfly in51.72, 1.14 off his personal best. Phelps, who was unshaven and wore afive-year-old suit, also tried out a new stroke, swimming the last 15 meters ofthe 200 freestyle with straight arms, a windmill technique that taxes theshoulders but allows the arms to slice the water more efficiently. He's testingthe technique as he ponders his program for the major competitions ahead—he'sconfirmed only that the 100 free is in and the 400 IM is out—with an emphasison sprints. "It's like Tiger working on his putting and his pitching,"Phelps says. "It completes the whole package. It's different. It'sfun."
Using thewindmill stroke, he qualified eighth, in 23.24, on Saturday morning in theheats of the 50 free, an event he will not swim in major meets but one he hopeswill build his speed for the 100 free and improve his often mediocre starts. Asplanned, he scratched from the 50 final that evening to focus on another newevent, the 100 backstroke, in which he finished second, .47 behind Olympicchampion and world-record holder Aaron Peirsol. On Sunday, Phelps finishedsecond in the 100 free, using a mix of the straight-arm stroke and his usualbent-arm technique.
His sport isstill riding the Phelps wave. Last Thursday a premeet press conference thatwould normally struggle to lure the Durham Herald-Sun welcomed L'Equipe,Japan's TV Asahi and the BBC. In 2008 USA Swimming saw the largest annualincrease in membership in its 29-year history, both in raw numbers (23,977) andpercentage (12.2%), and early figures suggest it's on pace to approach thosebenchmarks again in 2009. Four days after Phelps won his eighth gold medal inBeijing, NBC Sports committed to televise the 2009 worlds in Rome this summerand the U.S. nationals through 2011. "This deal is unprecedented," saysMike McCarley, a vice president for NBC Sports' Olympics division. "Michaelhas taken swimming to a new level."
Phelps'sperformance in Beijing will long stand as a record, yet the 23-year-old'slegacy may lie in the way he has extended interest in his sport beyond theOlympics. "A packed house nine months after the Games?" says Peirsol."Full props to Michael, man. If people outside swimming are talking abouthim, that helps the rest of us."
After returningfrom Beijing, Phelps hosted Saturday Night Live, was a presenter at the MTVVideo Music Awards and received honors from both Muhammad Ali and the MarylandSenate. He helped parody the show Grey's Anatomy by playing "Dr.McSwimmy" on Jimmy Kimmel's pre--Emmy Awards special and was name-droppedin the hip-hop song I'm So Paid by Akon featuring Lil Wayne and Young Jeezy("Gold chains round my neck just like Michael Phelps"). As part of amonthlong auction to benefit the Robert F. Kennedy Center, people can bid on aswim lesson from Phelps along with a singing lesson from Aretha Franklin, atour of the Air and Space Museum with John Glenn or a chance to hear the DalaiLama with Richard Gere.
Phelps used his$1 million Olympic bonus from Speedo to create a foundation to promote watersafety for kids. But on Feb. 1 the tabloid News of the World published a photoof him inhaling from a bong at a party at the University of South Carolina lastNovember. Phelps—who later apologized for his "bad judgment"—was notcharged with a crime, but USA Swimming suspended him from competition for threemonths. The layoff and fallout from the photo were wrenching for Phelps."Some days he'd train for 20 minutes. Some days he wouldn't come [atall]," says Bob Bowman, his coach of 13 years. "That was the lowest I'dseen him." Phelps told Bowman that the sport might be better off withouthim. The coach responded in a language Phelps understood, with a series of textmessages consisting only of goal times for two of his races.
Over the nextmonth the pair spoke little during practice, discussing the future via moretexts. Each time Phelps sent a pessimistic message, Bowman would reply onlywith race times. When Phelps typed back, "Nobody can go that fast" afew weeks later, Bowman knew his star pupil was once again ready to bite at thechallenge.
On March 1 Bowmanwas waiting in the lobby of the Kennedy Center in Washington before an EvgenyKissin concert when his own maestro called. "You ready for four moreyears?" Phelps asked him. Bowman smiled but feigned indifference. "Ofwhat?" he replied.
"I'm ready togo," Phelps insisted.
Bowman washopeful, but not yet convinced. "The next day [at practice] he dideverything I asked," the coach recalls. "He was fired up. When he'sattacking his goals, that's when he's really on." On March 3 Phelps sentBowman an e-mail with his own target times for his entire program through theLondon Olympics in 2012. "He doesn't feel any more pressure to winmedals," Bowman says. "We're doing it because he wants to do it, kindof like when he was 12." Phelps is indeed back in his element.
The fallout from the bong photo was wrenching forPhelps, who for a month rarely spoke to his coach.
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Photograph by SIMON BRUTY
EYES ON 2012 Phelps wore an old suit and didn't even shave, but he won two events and caused a buzz with his new freestyle stroke.
Photographs by SIMON BRUTY
Photograph by SIMON BRUTY
FULL HOUSE Charlotte is usually a low-key meet, but fans, international media, even fellow swimmers came out in force to see Phelps's return.