MESA, ARIZ. — Michael Phelps couldn't say it enough times, even joking that he would bore questioners with his repetitive explanation for returning to competitive swimming.
"I'm having fun," he answered over and over Wednesday in his first public remarks since his comeback became official last week.
Phelps, 28, will swim at the Mesa Grand Prix Thursday, his first race since he won his record-setting 18th gold medal at the 2012 Olympics. He said then he'd never be back, that he'd be relieved to live away from the pool for the first time in his life.
But a loose, joking Phelps described how his life of leisure — full of golf and travel — gradually ceased to be enough.
"For me, being able to do nothing for a year and a half, two years … I had a lot of fun," he said. "And there was something that I missed. Being able to be back in the pool, just go to the pool, and be back at North Baltimore and swim with the group we have now. It's incredible."
Though he faced several questions about his plans for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Phelps refused to be pinned down. "I am not signing, not that I know of, any contract," he said, grinning. "I'm doing this because I want to. Nobody's forcing me to do this."
Phelps plans to swim the 100-meter butterfly on Thursday (he scratched the 100-meter freestyle), then come back for the 50-meter freestyle on Friday. By his old standards of rigor, he's easing back in. But he will likely face excellent competition, including his longtime pal and Olympic rival Ryan Lochte.
Watching Phelps in the warm-up pool Wednesday, you'd have never guessed he spent 20 months away from competition. He wore his blue and white North Baltimore Aquatic Club swim cap with an American flag on the side. His midsection looked chiseled, and he engulfed great swaths of water with his pterodactyl wingspan.
His mood seemed light as he bantered with his coach, Bob Bowman, at poolside.
Both men described a Phelps who's far more enthusiastic during workouts than he was during the run-up to the London Olympics.
"Going into 2012, it was hard," Phelps said. "There were a lot of ups and downs. It was very challenging at times to get motivated."
Phelps couldn't come up with a single moment when he knew he'd compete again. He acknowleged his disappointment with the U.S. team's performance at the 2013 World Championships in Barcelona but didn't sign on to the theory, expressed by others, that his rage to win returned at the summer meet.
Instead, he described a more gradual process — returning to the pool in Mount Washington to get in shape and holding off on any bigger decisions longer than Bowman would have liked. He called himself the "grandfather" of NBAC's current team, which features new stars such as 21-year-old French Olympian Yannick Agnel.
Phelps said he weighed as much as 225 pounds during his time away, 38 more than when he competed in London. He said he was down to 194 for the Mesa meet.
"When he first came back, he was sooo out of shape," Bowman said, with Phelps feigning mortification beside him. "So it took awhile for it to get like, OK, he can do this in public in front of somebody. That was probably January. After that, I thought if he wanted to [come back], he could."
Phelps expressed joy over the small details he missed from competition. Bowman, for example, asked Phelps when he last received a pre-race massage.
"London," the swimmer replied.
He'll be different in at least one way Thursday, swimming without Speedo gear for the first time in more than a decade. Phelps' deal with the apparel company, which awarded him a $1 million bonus after he won eight gold medals in the 2008 Olympics, expired at the end of last year.
"I don't have any swimsuit deals right now," he said. "I have nothing. … I guess I'm considered a free agent at this point."
The company released a statement, saying: "Though the partnership with Michael has ended, he will always be a part of Speedo's history and we wish him well in the future."
Despite his casual façade, Phelps acknowleged the raging competitive streak still inside of him. He said he would never return without goals in mind.
"I have an idea what I want to do," he said. "And I won't tell you, so don't ask."
In trying to nail down Phelps' plans for Rio, a Brazilian reporter reminded the swimmer he had promised to take his mother.
"I guess I'm at least going with my mom," he answered. "Whether I'm in the pool or in the stands, I guess time will tell."
Phelps did say he recognized the need to get in shape for this summer if he's to be on track for world-class competition. Though he hasn't committed to swimming at U.S. Nationals in August, that meet will determine the team for next year's World Championships in Russia, a destination for most Olympic contenders.
Asked if he could possibly tarnish his legacy by swimming below his usual standards, Phelps offered his strongest remarks of the afternoon.
"I'm doing this for me," he said. "If I don't become as successful as you all think I would be or should be and you think it tarnishes my career, then that's your opinion. I'm doing this because I want to come back and I enjoy being in the pool. … I'm looking forward to where this road will take me. I guess my journey will start tomorrow."