MESA, ARIZ. — An emotional and rejuvenated Michael Phelps confirmed Wednesday what the swimming world had long assumed — he'll try to add to his record total of 22 Olympic medals at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Phelps made his Olympic intentions plain the day before his return to competition after a six-month suspension for drunk driving. He'll swim the 100-meter butterfly at the Mesa Arena Pro Swim Series meet on Thursday.
His presence promises a festive atmosphere here and greater attention for the sport as eyes turn toward the 2016 Olympics.
"I'm really excited," fellow Olympic gold medalist Breeja Larson said of Phelps' Rio announcement. "I think he brings a lot of excitement to the sport and a lot of spectators. The more spectators there are, the more fun it is for us. And it's really cool to be part of a team with veterans who've gone through a lot and to see his example of how he handles different situations with media and crowds."
Phelps, who grew up in Rodgers Forge and lives and trains in Baltimore, described a period of "brutal" self-examination in the wake of his arrest last September but said he's emerged as a happier person and a more dedicated swimmer.
"In workouts, I feel like a kid again, I really do," Phelps, 29, said in his most extensive public remarks since the arrest .
"The difference in your training is you're engaged in it," his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, interjected. "Like when you show up, things happen."
"I think that's how I am with everything now," Phelps said. "I'm just in tune. I'm aware of everything that's going on, and I'm excited about the things I'm doing. … These are the things I want to be doing."
At his trial in December and again Wednesday, Phelps said he's learned a lot about himself. Asked what he discovered, he replied: "I am who I am. I've said this a lot over the last few months: I'm perfectly imperfect. I'm a human being. It's like, if I have all this energy and I'm annoying and you don't like that, well too bad. That's who I am. And I'm OK with that. I like myself for who I am."
Phelps also put to rest speculation that he'll rejoin the U.S. team for the FINA World Championships in August. USA Swimming removed him from the team as part of his punishment for the drunk driving arrest, but executive director Chuck Wielgus had said there was room for that to change. Phelps, however, said he'll swim at the Phillips 66 Nationals in San Antonio rather than in Russia.
"I do accept the decision that USA Swimming made back early in the fall," he said. "By no means do I want this to be a distraction from the team. I know how hard it is to qualify for the team, and I know how much hard work goes into the team. And for me, no way would I ever want to displace a member of the team."
Bowman said Phelps' absence from the biggest meet of 2015 will be "disappointing," but added "we're anxious to move on."
Phelps then segued to saying he looked forward to rejoining the national team for the Olympics. "Like it's a big surprise," he said, laughing. "I don't think it's too hard to realize why I actually came back."
As ever, Phelps declined to lay out his specific plans for the Olympics. "The goals I have are lofty," he said. "Don't waste your time asking what they are, because obviously, you all know … you're not going to find out what they are. But they are going to be very challenging."
He said he's training harder than he did at any point during the run-up to the 2012 Olympics in London, where he won four gold and two silver medals and retired from the sport, saying he'd be in Rio as a spectator not a swimmer. Phelps ended his 20-month, post-Olympic retirement last year but described himself as "fat and out of shape" then. He said there's no comparison between that version of him and the swimmer who will hit the pool Thursday.
"It's just kind of cool, coming in and swimming fast every day," he said. "I really can't tell you how much I'm enjoying it. … It's exciting for me because it's something I haven't seen in a long time."
Phelps has kept a fairly low profile since he returned to Baltimore after 45 days of in-patient treatment for alcohol abuse. But what glimpses he's offered, via Twitter and Instagram posts, have suggested a happy life with his family, new fiancee Nicole Johnson and daily training sessions at the Meadowbrook Aquatic Center in Mount Washington.
He was in a cheerful mood Wednesday morning, snapping photos of North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammate Allison Schmitt as they goofed around in the warm-up pool.
Phelps knows part of his return will entail facing skeptics, who'll note that he promised change before, after a previous drunk driving arrest in 2004 and after he was photographed smoking a marijuana pipe in 2009.
"If someone doesn't believe the words that are coming out of my mouth, that's not my choice," he said. "I know the only person I can control in every situation is myself. I would like to show everybody in the world that I am in a different place, and I am much better than I ever have been. I understand that's going to take a lot of time."
Bowman said no one was more skeptical than he after Phelps' turbulent preparations for the 2012 Olympics and the swimmer's arrest last year.
"It was going to be pretty hard to convince me that anything was going to lead back to something we would be proud of," said the coach who's worked with Phelps since he was an adolescent.
But Phelps called several times during treatment. Then Bowman visited his swimmer at the rehab facility in Arizona.
"When I left there … I just had no doubt that he had changed in a way that was really meaningful," Bowman recalled. "It wasn't superficial. It wasn't that he was doing it because he knew he had to. And it's been that way every day since he's been back. That's the truth, and nobody's harder on him than me."
Phelps acknowledged the pain and disappointment he caused. He said he barely left his room during his first week at the rehab facility before he embraced the process of rebuilding his life.
"For me, I know I've hurt a lot of people," he said. "I've hurt a lot of people, and it's been terrible. … Have I screwed up? Yeah. A lot. A lot."
He said he was near tears on the plane ride to Arizona, reading letters about perseverance from students at Baltimore's Winfield Elementary.
Phelps pleaded guilty to DUI in Baltimore District Court in December and received a one-year suspended sentence and 18 months of supervised probation. He called the arrest and rehabilitation stint "some of the hardest times I've ever gone through."
On a happier note, he described reconnecting with and proposing to Johnson, the former Miss California whom he dated on and off for eight years.
"I said to a couple of my friends if I ever had a chance to get her back, that would be it," he said. "She was the one that I loved the most. I never wanted to have a what if, and I told her exactly how I felt."
A wedding will have to wait until after Rio. But Phelps joked about being an aging guy who fusses with his wife-to-be over home alterations and watches his friends have children. "I guess it's just that time," he said, laughing. "And I'm ready for it. That's the most important thing. Her and I are both ready for it together."
Phelps is also using the Mesa meet to unveil the new line of swimwear he and Bowman helped design with Aqua Sphere. Both swimmer and coach arrived at the pool Wednesday in T-shirts bearing the line's MP logo. After a career spent swimming in Speedo gear, Phelps will race in his new Aqua Sphere XPRESSO suit this week. The men's suit will be available to the public in May and the women's version later in the summer.
Working with Aqua Sphere on the suit design, Phelps said he was 'like a kid in a candy store." He grew up emulating Michael Jordan, and one of his goals was to change the marketing face of swimming, as Jordan did with his Nike sponsorship in professional basketball.
If Phelps needed a reminder of his impact, next-generation star Katie Ledecky recalled getting his autograph at a national meet in College Park when she was 6 .
"He's always been a role model for all swimmers, and I think everyone's excited to see how he'll do here," Ledecky said.
Phelps grinned upon hearing he'd once signed for a fellow gold medalist. "I guess I have been swimming that long," he said. "I am the old man in the sport now."