After months of workouts reminiscent of the training from his peak years, Michael Phelps is ready for the payoff.
He's about to get his best gauge of where he stands in preparation for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. And he could use a jolt of confidence after a year of personal tumult and erratic performances in competition.
Phelps hopes to swim his best times of 2015 this weekend at the Phillips 66 National Championships in San Antonio, where he'll begin racing Friday.
"This is kind of what I was preparing for the whole entire year," he said at a premeet news conference. "I'm honestly just excited to see where I am."
He'll be in the odd position of trying to peak while most of his top competitors are thousands of miles away at the FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia.
Phelps was dropped from the U.S. team as part of USA Swimming's punishment for his drunken-driving arrest in September.
After he returned from treatment for alcohol abuse and accepted a six-month suspension, Phelps dedicated himself to training in a way he hadn't since before he won eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
But all the hard work has yet to produce the desired results in competition.
"He's swum far below his training level in meets," longtime coach Bob Bowman said. "Everything in practice has been really good, which is why the meets have been a little disappointing."
The dynamic is a reverse of Phelps' 2014, when he trained halfheartedly but periodically produced excellent times in actual competition.
Bowman said even Phelps' performance in June at the Arena Pro Swim Series meet in Santa Clara, Calif., — a clear improvement over his effort the previous month in Charlotte, N.C. — was "not great."
Phelps and Bowman are paying close attention to the times from this week's World Championships.
"We can't ignore them," Bowman said. "If we're going to be on track for next year, we need to know where we are."
Phelps said he was left nearly speechless by some of the underwhelming times the American team turned in, especially in relays. "I really don't know what to say about what I've seen over there. It's interesting," he said. "We've never been in a spot where we're trying to get back to the top."
But he said he hasn't been surprised by the winning times in his individual events.
In the 200-meter butterfly, Hungarian Laszlo Cseh won in 1 minute, 53.48 seconds, well off Phelps' 2009 world record but almost four seconds better than Phelps' winning time in Santa Clara.
When Phelps came out of retirement last year, he said he no longer planned to swim the 200 butterfly, long his signature event. But as he ramped up his training this year, Bowman nudged him to return.
Phelps initially felt so tired over the second 100 meters in the race that he equated it to swimming with a piano strapped to his back. But he was happier with his performance in Santa Clara, and Bowman will look for a stronger finishing kick in San Antonio.
"That's the key, and that's what he hasn't been doing," he said.
He and Phelps also worked out a glitch in the swimmer's butterfly stroke in recent months and believe the change will lead to better times.
Meanwhile, in the 200 individual medley, Phelps' old rival, Ryan Lochte, won a fourth straight world championship in 1 minute, 55.81 seconds. Again, the mark was slower than Phelps' best but nearly four seconds better than Phelps' winning time in Santa Clara.
Phelps will swim the 200 butterfly Friday, the 100 butterfly Saturday and the 200 IM on Sunday along with a rare outing in the 200 breaststroke Monday.
He'll skip freestyle, which he'll likely swim in next summer's Olympic Trials, because he wants to focus on one race per day. Phelps will swim the breaststroke essentially because there's nothing else for him to do Monday.
After nationals, Bowman officially will take over coaching duties at Arizona State, and Phelps will be with him, preparing for Rio. The swimmer hasn't turned in a fall and winter of continuous work since 2007, but he says that's his plan. He'll also swim in meets as often as possible, hoping to sharpen a competitive form that dulled during his retirement and six-month suspension.
"I just want to see him keep taking steps forward with no long break," Bowman said. "If he comes to practice every day, we should be in really good shape."