He tinkered with his stroke and exhausted his muscles in the weight room. He grew a mustache. He won some races and lost a few. He just missed out on grabbing the world record he wants but doesn't own.

All that, however interesting or mundane, was merely part of a three-month dress rehearsal for swimmer Michael Phelps.

The real opening act - the one likely to provide the first snippet of drama to his return to competitive swimming - begins Tuesday at the national championships in Indianapolis.

And while it's almost a given that we won't see the dominant swimmer we saw in Beijing, it's a bit of a mystery what exactly we will see from Phelps, considering that he considered walking away from the sport this year, and that he was suspended from competition for three months by USA Swimming after a photo was published in a British tabloid that showed him holding a glass bong to his lips at a party.

Phelps is swimming in just four events - the 100-meter freestyle, 200-meter freestyle, 100-meter butterfly and 200-meter butterfly - and he'll probably be the favorite in all four. But it isn't out of the question that he could be beaten in one of them. He has been beaten a few times in the 100-meter freestyle this summer, although not by an American swimmer. In his most recent meet, the Canada Cup in Montreal, he nearly broke Ian Crocker's world record in the 100-meter butterfly, touching the wall in 50.48 seconds. It was a career-best time for Phelps.

"I think in general he's looking pretty good right now," said Bob Bowman, Phelps' longtime coach. "I don't think either one of us thinks he's perfectly prepared. We've been trying to change his freestyle stroke, which normally takes about a year. We've been trying to do it in about three months."

Phelps' transition to sprinting is his and Bowman's long-term goal, but in the short term, the focus this week is just to make the American team for the 2009 FINA world championships, which will be held this month in Rome. That means finishing in the top two in every race, which, barring something unusual, shouldn't be a problem.

Phelps wasn't available for interviews last week, but he will be speaking today at a news conference in Indianapolis.

"My only hopes for Michael are that he stay motivated long term," said Mark Schubert, head coach of the U.S. national team. "I'm looking forward to the world championships to see what he can do. He seems to be motivated and happy, moving forward in the sport with new challenges. Just his presence, what he brings out [in] the crowd, and [the] atmosphere he creates, is good for the sport. I don't think Michael needs to win eight gold medals every time out. But he looks at every event as a challenge."

Phelps might even have more time to rest in this meet than in any other major meet he has entered in years. He dropped both grueling individual medley events from his program after the Olympics and decided not to swim in either backstroke event, even though he is one of the best in the world in that stroke.

"He really hasn't done any training at all for the 200 backstroke, so I felt like it would be disingenuous to ask him to go out there and swim it," Bowman said.

There's also a good chance Phelps will drop one of his four events, choosing between the 100-meter freestyle and the 200-meter butterfly at the world championships because the schedule would make swimming both almost impossible.

It could be a difficult decision. He's the world-record holder in the 200-meter butterfly, and not one of the world's elite in the 100-meter freestyle, but his main goal this year is to transition to sprinting.

"As long as we have Michael on the relays, I'm a happy camper," Schubert said.

Swimming, in general, is certainly happy to have Phelps back and on center stage. For the first time, there will be live television coverage of the U.S. nationals, with the event scheduled to appear each night on Universal Sports. (It will be edited down and shown on NBC on July 11 and 12.) NBC will also televise the world championships for the first time.

And Phelps has apparently suffered minimal fallout from the bong photo and suspension. Subway announced last week that he will appear in TV commercials promoting the sandwich chain. Phelps signed an endorsement deal with Subway shortly before the photo surfaced, and the company decided to delay using him as a pitchman until now.

"In many ways, Michael breaks the mold," Tony Pace, the company's chief marketing officer, told the Associated Press. "Based on all the tracking we do, he's still incredibly highly regarded and his performance is still something people talk about."

Towson's Katie Hoff will also be competing at the U.S. nationals (100-, 200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyle), although her training has been hampered somewhat by a respiratory infection that forced her to withdraw from a meet in Santa Clara, Calif., last month.

U.S. national championships

When: Tuesday-Saturday

Where: Indiana University Natatorium, Indianapolis

TV: 6 p.m.-7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, Universal Sports; 1 p.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m.-3 p.m. Sunday, NBC

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