World curious to see Phelps swim in his return

- Normally, the Charlotte UltraSwim Grand Prix is a pretty tame affair. In a busy year, USA Swimming credentials eight to 10 media members to cover the meet, and that would probably be a generous estimate.

But when Michael Phelps announced that the UltraSwim, which begins Friday, would be his first meet since he won eight gold medals in Beijing - and the first meet since his three-month suspension for being photographed with a bong ended - normal and tame got tossed out the window.

Reporters from around world, about 85 according to USA Swimming, squeezed inside the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center on Thursday to hang on every word Phelps had to say about his return to competitive swimming. Journalists from England, France and Japan wanted to know whether Phelps felt remorse, whether he was serious about almost retiring, and whether he wanted to confiscate camera phones every time he walked into a room.

ESPN, CNN, Sports Illustrated, USA Today and other media outlets wondered whether he had any idea how he would swim after such a long layoff. For 30 minutes, he was peppered with questions, evidence that Phelps' return is being watched inside and outside the world of sports.

The 23-year-old Rodgers Forge native answered a majority of them and dodged a handful of others. He reiterated that he has no idea how he'll swim this week, just that he's looking forward to the challenge of swimming shorter distances. Asked whether he thinks the public has forgiven him for what he described as "inappropriate behavior," Phelps simply shrugged.

"That's a question I should be asking you guys," he said. "I don't know. As I said before, it was bad judgment and a very stupid mistake. It's something I've already learned from. Hopefully I can help people never make the same mistake."

Dressed in a black shirt and khaki pants and sporting a goatee not more than a few days old, Phelps joked that he has been doing news conferences like this for so long that they've simply become a part of what he considers "normal life." The months following Beijing have been "crazy" and "unreal," but he believes the next three years will be more fun than the previous eight have been.

"I hope they're a little more relaxed," Phelps said.

A few things will be different. He'll swim the 200-meter freestyle and 100-meter butterfly on Friday, the 50-meter freestyle and 100-meter backstroke on Saturday, and the 100-meter freestyle on Sunday. Just two of those events, the 100 butterfly and the 200 freestyle, were part of his Beijing program. He has also been working on a freestyle stroke that requires a faster tempo, and he has been lifting weights harder than ever.

"I think one of the biggest things that I've seen is more explosive weight exercises in the weight room," Phelps said. "Weight exercises that I've never done before this year. I haven't been this sore after lifting for a really long time. The weights are destroying me more than they ever have, so I guess that's a good thing."

This week, Phelps described himself as being in "semi-shape," a term that made coach Bob Bowman chuckle somewhat. Bowman estimates he has been coaching at about 50 percent intensity, something Phelps has been grateful for.

This is just the beginning of a long journey with the focus on the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis in early July and the FINA World Championships in Rome later that month. What happens right now matters little. There is a good chance - both he and Bowman concede - that someone will beat Phelps in an event this weekend. Which is fine.

"I like it when he gets beat because it gives me all kinds of ammunition in practice," Bowman said. "I have no expectations this week. Whatever he does, that's what we'll start with."

Some things, though, will be the way they've always been.

"I'm approaching this meet just like I've approached every other meet I've ever swam in," Phelps said. "I'll still have my headphones on. I'm still going to warm up the same way and probably eat the same food. I'll just get up and swim and see what happens. This is one of the things that I do pretty well - prepare myself for a meet. I'm sticking with what works."

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