Michael Phelps could be reinstated to the U.S. team for the FINA World Championships in August, a decision that would give the record-setting swimmer a significant meet to point to as he prepares for a possible Olympic bid in 2016.
USA Swimming removed Phelps from its World Championship team as part of his punishment for a drunken driving arrest at the end of September. ESPN reported Tuesday night that the record-setting Olympian had talked informally with USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus about a possible reinstatement for the meet in Kazan, Russia.
"It's complicated, but there are ways in which it could happen," Wielgus told ESPN. "There's a pathway for things to be reconsidered — or considered." He said the ultimate decision would rest with national team coach Frank Busch.
USA Swimming spokesman Scott Leightman said he had nothing to add to the report Wednesday but did not dispute it. Phelps' spokesman declined to comment, and his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, did not respond to a request for comment.
Former gold medalist and longtime NBC swimming analyst Rowdy Gaines said he believes fellow swimmers have been the key figures pushing for a possible Phelps reinstatement.
"I'm of the belief that this wouldn't help him much but that he would come back because it would help the team," Gaines said. "These aren't decisions being pushed by officials. It's the team captains who want him there, not just for his skills but because they need his leadership."
The ESPN report quoted national team members Natalie Coughlin and Tyler Clary as advocates for lifting Phelps' suspension.
Gaines praised USA Swimming in October for handing Phelps a stiff penalty, but he said the re-evaluation also makes sense.
"I was proud of them for making the initial decision, but I'm also proud of them for listening to their troops," he said.
In addition to the World Championship ban, Phelps was suspended six months by USA Swimming, a penalty that will end April 6, a few weeks before he plans to return to competition at the Arena Pro Swim Series event in Mesa, Ariz.
Though World Championships don't receive nearly as much attention as the Olympics, the meet is easily the most significant on the international swimming calendar for 2015. Without competing in Russia, Phelps would be forced to test his form in a series of smaller meets against lesser fields.
Phelps has yet to say he's aiming for a fifth Olympics in 2016, but others in the swimming world have long assumed he'll try to add to his record 18 gold medals. The Rodgers Forge native has used past World Championships as staging grounds for his Olympic conquests. He has won 26 gold medals at Worlds and set his first world record at the 2001 meet in Japan, when he was just 15.
Swimming analysts have said missing World Championships would be little impediment for a swimmer with such vast experience on the international stage.
"It can't hurt him to be there, but he's just done this for so long that he'd be fine either way," Gaines said.
Gaines added that younger swimmers on the U.S. relay teams would benefit from swimming with Phelps more than Phelps would benefit from facing elite competition.
But one of Phelps' greatest historic rivals, former Olympian gold medalist Ian Crocker, placed more import on the meet.
"Nothing compares to the pressure and hype of the Olympics, but Worlds is as close as it gets," Crocker said. "Regardless of a swimmer's level of experience, it's important to get … practice at high-intensity, high-stakes, high-emotion meets, and that makes Worlds critical for preparation."
If he does swim in Russia, Phelps would likely boost his country's medal chances, even if he can't surpass his uneven form from 2014. He swam the fastest time in the world last year in the 100-meter butterfly and also swam on two gold-medal relay teams at the Pan Pacific Championships in late August.
Despite being named USA Swimming's male athlete of the year in 2014, Phelps was periodically dissatisfied with his performance after he ended a 20-month retirement. He vowed to intensify his training in response.
Though Phelps hasn't commented on his swimming form since his arrest and 45-day stint in treatment for alcohol abuse, he has posted training photos on Instagram. He and his North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammates have spent recent weeks enduring altitude training in Colorado.
Phelps also recently announced his engagement to former Miss California Nicole Johnson.
After pleading guilty to driving under the influence in December, Phelps received a one-year suspended sentence and 18 months probation. He is barred from drinking alcohol while on probation.
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