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Michael Phelps plans to return to competition in April, coach says

Michael Phelps plans to return from his six-month suspension in April at the Arena Pro Swim Series event in Mesa, Ariz.

The record-setting Olympian's longtime coach, Bob Bowman, confirmed the plan Friday after reports emerged from Germany, where Phelps was making an appearance.

Phelps came out of retirement at the same event last year, finishing second in the 100-meter butterfly before a festive sellout crowd. This year's Mesa event is scheduled for April 15-18.

USA Swimming suspended Phelps for six months after his arrest for drunk driving in late September. He was also dropped from the U.S. team for FINA World Championships in August.

Phelps avoided jail time for the offense, his second drunk driving charge in 10 years, but he was sentenced to 18 months supervised probation after he pleaded guilty in Baltimore District Court in December. Phelps spent 45 days at an in-patient facility in Arizona receiving treatment for alcohol abuse.

Phelps hasn't competed since late August, when he won three gold medals at Pan-Pacific Championships in Australia. But fellow elite swimmers expect him to come back faster than he was in 2014, said former Olympic gold medalist Mel Stewart, who covers the sport for his website SwimSwam.com.

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"Specifically, I'm looking for a more powerful Phelps and a Phelps that finishes his races stronger," Stewart said. "Everyone's expectation is he'll make a gain. We're just wondering what those gains will be."

Stewart said he wouldn't be surprised if Phelps has another world record or two in him.

"The general opinion is that's he's highly motivated to perform," he said. "It's that mentality of, 'I had a tough year, but remember who I am.'"

Phelps has periodically posted tweets about training in recent weeks and reiterated to German reporters that he's enjoying his time in the pool as much as ever. But the Rodgers Forge native remained non-committal about his plans for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where he could build on his record of 22 medals at the Games.

His decision to compete in Mesa again created an anticipatory buzz for that event. VIP tickets for the meet's Saturday night session sold out within moments, said Paul Smith, CEO of the host Mesa Aquatics Club. Sales of general admission tickets also accelerated.

"He's still a draw," Smith said.

Smith added that the USA Swimming suspension has done little to dim fans' enthusiasm for seeing Phelps.

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"It created a teachable moment for a lot of coaches, but I don't feel any residual fallout of the respect and admiration for what Michael has done," Smith said. "We consider it behind him."

childs.walker@baltsun.com
twitter.com/childswalker

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