Coach says Michael Phelps has been 'a different person' since his return to training

The session foretold a winter of renewed dedication for Phelps, whose commitment to training wavered in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics and during his comeback to competition last year.


He couldn't enter a meet because of the six-month suspension handed down from USA Swimming after Phelps was arrested for drunk driving outside the Fort McHenry Tunnel in September. But coach Bob Bowman saw an ardor in his longtime pupil that hadn't been present since Phelps' heyday, when the swimmer won a record eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

"It's like being in a time machine," Bowman said of his recent work with Phelps. "It's remarkable to see somebody at age 29, doing some things faster than he ever has. He's doing things I haven't seen him do in at least six years."


Now the wider swimming world is about to get its first glimpse of what a rededicated Phelps has left in his formidable tank.

Phelps' suspension ended last week, and the Rodgers Forge native is expected to race for the first time in almost eight months Thursday at the Arena Pro Swim Series meet in Mesa, Ariz. He'll also face extensive media questions for the first time since his arrest.

Bowman, who has always spoken frankly in assessing Phelps, seems genuinely impressed with the swimmer's progress, both in and out of the pool.

"He's a different person now," Bowman said. "He made some real decisions about his life, and he's stuck to them. He's got himself together, and the credit goes entirely to him. He did all of it himself."

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 Meadowbrook.

The Mesa meet represents an exciting milestone for Phelps and for the sport, which still relies on him as its signature star. Ticket sales in Mesa accelerated rapidly when Phelps announced his plans to appear.

Former Olympic gold medalist Mel Stewart, who covers the sport for his website SwimSwam.com, said he expects the Mesa meet to drive as much traffic on his site as any event this year. He said the buzz will be enhanced by Phelps pushing his new line of Aqua Sphere swim gear.

"It's the anticipation of Phelps swimming and the anticipation of a swimmer carrying his own brand, his version of Air Jordan," Stewart said.

Stewart doesn't expect any bad feelings lingering from Phelps' arrest or suspension. "He's the biggest star in the sport, the biggest star we've ever had," he said. "When he shows up, everybody on the deck is happy. It's that feeling that anything can happen."

Phelps gave a small hint of his racing form last month at an exhibition in Austin, Texas, where he tossed off the seventh fastest time in history in the 200-yard individual medley.

"He's dying to compete," Bowman said. "That's what he loves."

It's not clear whether Phelps will try to deliver a few eye-popping times in Mesa or whether he'll simply treat the meet as groundwork for future performances on larger stages. Either way, all signs point to him arriving as a fitter swimmer than he was at this time last year.


As Bowman noted, the formula for Phelps has always been fairly simple: "If he comes to practice, he gets really good. It's not magic."

But the coming to practice part was no easy thing in the years after Phelps broke Marc Spitz's gold medal record in Beijing. He and Bowman sparred regularly during preparations for the 2012 Olympics, with the coach fearing an undertrained Phelps might fail to honor his unmatched legacy.

Phelps ultimately won four gold medals in London, breaking the overall record for most Olympic medals by any athlete. But his failure to win a medal in the 400-meter IM spoke to his sub-optimal conditioning, and he retired from the sport, saying he was ready for a more relaxed life.

Phelps returned last year, saying he was happy to be in the pool again but admittedly training less than half as much as he did at his peak. He and Bowman painted a relaxed picture of their goals, saying Phelps would set his own schedule.

But the half-in approach produced mixed results, with Phelps swimming the best time of 2014 in the 100-meter butterfly and winning three gold medals at Pan Pacific Championships but often struggling to produce multiple strong swims in the same day.

He was visibly annoyed with his performance at Phillips 66 National Championships in August and said he'd have to train harder to regain his customary consistency. Then came his arrest, which raised new questions about the future.

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 spoke briefly after his hearing, calling the arrest and his rehabilitation stint "some of the hardest times I've ever gone through."

He hasn't made many public statements since, though he's expected to answer media questions on Wednesday before resuming his racing career Thursday.

Mesa is a familiar stage for Phelps. It's the same meet where he ended his 20-month, post-Olympics retirement last spring.

He's entered in five races from Thursday through Saturday — the 100-meter butterfly, the 100 freestyle, the 200 IM, the 100 backstroke and the 400-meter freestyle, an event he hasn't swum since 2009.

Though Phelps could scratch from one or more of those races, it's a more ambitious program than any he attempted last year. Bowman said Phelps will likely tinker with different combinations of events as he makes his way through the Arena Pro series, which includes meets in Charlotte and Santa Clara, Calif. This departure from the "boring" programs of 2014 will give Phelps sense of where he stands as he eyes a possible fifth Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Bowman said Phelps is "in the same place," remaining publicly non-committal about the Olympics. But his peers have long assumed he would never have returned to competition if he didn't plan to swim in Rio.

It also remains unclear whether Phelps might be restored to the U.S. team for the FINA World Championships in August. He was removed from the team as part of his punishment for the DUI arrest, the swimmer's second in 10 years. But USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus has said it's possible that could change.

Bowman said he'd let Phelps speak to the importance of world championships, a subject he'll certainly be asked about this week. "But his swim career can proceed with it or without it," Bowman said.


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