Michael Phelps is scheduled to face trial on drunken driving charges in a Baltimore courtroom Friday morning. As he does, the Olympic great has already begun preparations to resume competing sometime next year.
Though he's unlikely to face jail time, according to experts familiar with the state's handling of similar cases, Phelps' path ahead is not entirely clear.
He put swimming aside after he was charged with drunken driving for the second time in 10 years in late September. Five days after his arrest outside the Fort McHenry Tunnel, Phelps announced he was checking into a six-week in-patient program to work on his personal life. The day after that, USA Swimming suspended Phelps from competition for six months.
Since he returned home, Phelps has remained out of the public eye, though he posted an Instagram photo of him smiling through a thick beard at his family's Thanksgiving celebration.
He hasn't made any formal announcements about his plans to compete, but his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, told the Associated Press the swimmer is in decent shape and considering his meet options once his USA Swimming suspension ends in early March.
Before any of that, Phelps, 29, will learn his legal fate in Baltimore District Court, where experts expect him to plead to the charge of "driving under the influence per se" and avoid a potential one-year jail sentence. Though he's on a second offense, a judge is unlikely to order jail time for several reasons, said Scott Richman, an attorney with Miles & Stockbridge who recently finished a two-year stint with the Baltimore state's attorney's office in which he prosecuted hundreds of DUI cases.
The 10-year gap between his arrests, the fact he did not cause an accident and his relatively low blood-alcohol level will all help Phelps, Richman said. A judge could also be impressed the swimmer entered a treatment program so quickly after he was arrested.
"That's definitely a positive step," Richman said. "There are some judges who might order incarceration in a case like this, maybe give the person a weekend or two. But he's probably looking at a suspended jail sentence."
Phelps' attorney Steven A. Allen declined to comment on the case.
Police said they stopped Phelps outside the Fort McHenry Tunnel after clocking him at 84 mph in a 45-mph zone. He was charged with DUI, excessive speed and crossing double lane lines. His blood-alcohol level was 0.14 percent, and he failed field sobriety tests, police said. The state's legal limit is 0.08 percent.
Phelps posted an apology on Twitter the next afternoon: "I understand the severity of my actions and take full responsibility. I know these words may not mean much right now but I am deeply sorry to everyone I have let down."
He previously pleaded guilty to driving while impaired after a 2004 arrest in Wicomico County, when he was 19. He received a probation before judgment rather than a conviction in that case.
The swimmer's celebrity is unlikely to play a significant role in his case, Richman said, though he added a prosecutor could seize on Phelps' past statements of public remorse to show Phelps has not kept his promises to change.
In lieu of jail time, Richman said, a judge could order Phelps to attend victim impact sessions held by Mothers Against Drunk Driving or to visit Maryland Shock Trauma. He could also be ordered not to use alcohol or drugs while on supervised probation, which is likely to last 18-24 months, Richman said.
Regardless of his specific sentence, observers expect Phelps' focus to shift firmly to swimming as the calendar turns to 2015.
"I think we'll see the same old Michael Phelps," said former Olympic gold medalist Rowdy Gaines, an NBC swimming analyst. "Regardless of what's happened in his personal life, you can never deny his consistency in the pool. And that's not suddenly going to change."
Gaines added that regardless of any disappointment with Phelps' mistakes, the swimming world will be thrilled whenever he races again. "You want to be able to tell your children and grandchildren you saw this guy," he said. "He's our Ali, our Babe Ruth."
Though he still hasn't said he plans to compete at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Phelps has also done nothing to dismiss that notion since he ended his 20-month retirement from competition last April.
Word of Phelps' return to practice came at the end of last month, when a North Baltimore Aquatic Club representative said he was "happily back in the pool, working toward his goals for next year" while accepting an award on Phelps' behalf.
Rivals always expected his comeback to survive this legal hurdle. Phelps would be "ready for Rio" longtime Olympic foe Ryan Lochte told NBC Sports in November.
In the past week, Phelps posted an Instagram photo from poolside in which he was showing a young swimmer his dive form. He appeared lean and muscular.
Bowman, who did not reply to interview requests this week, told the Associate Press that Phelps is in better shape now than he was at this time last year.
A marketing analyst said Phelps is likely to remain a popular name as companies begin to consider Olympic campaigns for 2016.
"The second DUI certainly gives marketers some pause in considering him for upcoming Olympics deals, but assuming he stays on the straight and narrow between now and Rio, and returns to his winning ways in the pool, he'd have to be at or near the top of the list for any company planning a 2016 Olympics campaign," said Bob Dorfman, executive creative director for Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco. "He's a household name and face, will garner heavy prime-time coverage, and his story is simply too compelling to pass up."
The first significant meet after Phelps' suspension lifts will be the Mesa (Ariz.) Grand Prix, which begins April 15. It's the same meet where Phelps ended his retirement in front of raucous sellout crowds earlier this year.
Most elite swimmers will gear their year toward the FINA World Championships in August. But USA Swimming removed Phelps from its team as part of his punishment for the drunken driving incident, so he won't compete in that meet in Russia.
It's possible the next time he'd face an elite international field would be at the 2016 Olympics, which would be his fifth. He holds the all-time records with 18 gold medals and 22 overall medals.
Gaines said that given Phelps' vast experience, missing World Championships "is not going to have any effect on him."
"It hurts swimming for him not to be there," Gaines said. "But hurt Michael? I don't think so."
Though Phelps' form was more erratic than usual this year, he did show he hadn't lost his world-class speed, especially in the 100-meter butterfly, a race in which he swam the fastest time of 2014 and won a gold medal at Pan Pacific Championships in August.