Sunday, May 16, 2010

One year removed from an embarrassing suspension, Michael Phelps noticed a big change as he arrived for his first long-course meet of the year. He didn't see all those television satellite trucks parked outside the pool.

"There were a lot more live media feeds last year," Phelps said Thursday, breaking into a smile as he met with a small group of reporters, nearly all of them based locally.

Indeed, the Charlotte UltraSwim will be a low-key start to his long-course season -- a striking contrast to this same meet a year ago, when Phelps returned to the sport after a three-month suspension for a published photograph showing him using a marijuana pipe.

Phelps overcame the scandal, hanging on to most of his sponsors and getting his career back on track by winning five gold medals at the world championships in Rome last summer. Now, he heads into a crucial year that will go a long way to determining what he does at his final Olympics in 2012.

"It's a little over two years away," said Phelps, who sported a scruffy beard. "This summer is a big, key, important part of the lead-up to London." He's scheduled to swim five events in Charlotte: the 200-meter freestyle, 100 butterfly, 100 backstroke, 200 individual medley and 50 free. All except the 50 free are legitimate possibilities for his Olympic program.

Phelps remained coy about how many events he might swim in London, though he's pretty much made it clear he won't attempt to duplicate his record eight gold medals in Beijing. But six events seems like a logical number, giving Phelps a chance to end his career with an even 20 golds.

He's already the winningest Olympian ever with 14 gold medals, and he can take the record to a level that would be hard for anyone to reach. "It won't be eight events," Phelps said. "That's all I'll say." His coach, Bob Bowman, provided some clues, however.

The 200 free is a "mainstay," Bowman said, an event that sets him up to swim the relays and will surely be on the Olympic program -- especially since Phelps lost that race, and his world record, to Germany's Paul Biedermann at last year's worlds.  Bowman pointed out that Phelps' best stroke is the butterfly, so that's at least one more event he can likely count on in London.

Plus, there's the individual medley -- the race that encompasses all four strokes. Phelps holds the world record in both the 200 and 400 but indicated after Beijing that he intended to give up the grueling events. After sticking to his plan last year, Phelps has grudgingly agreed to consider bringing at least one of them back at the next Olympics. "That's IM," the swimmer said, stressing the letters without making them plural. "I think there are two IMs," Bowman said, flashing a devilish look toward Phelps.

Assuming Phelps swims the 200 free, a fly and an IM in London -- along with all three relays -- that wouldn't leave much more wiggle room in the schedule. The wild card is the 100 backstroke, a race that Phelps feels he could win even against a loaded field that includes fellow Americans Ryan Lochte and Aaron Peirsol.

"I've always had fun doing the backstroke," Phelps said. "I've never really been able to swim a backstroke event (at a major competition) because the schedule hasn't worked out. But I've actually been feeling pretty decent in workouts in the backstroke. That's the one stroke I've felt the best at."

Both Peirsol and Lochte are competing at the Charlotte meet. Peirsol is the two-time defending gold medalist in the 100 back, and he was edged out for gold by Lochte in the 200 back at Beijing. "It's a pretty studded field in the 100 back this weekend," Phelps said. "It's going to be interesting just to get in there and race those guys and have some fun with it." He's sticking with his plan to retire after the London Games, saying he's adamant about leaving the sport before he turns 30.  He'll be 27 at the next Olympics.

"I have no idea if Bob could take me for another four years," Phelps quipped. But he's not ready to look that far ahead. There's plenty of work to do in the present. After Charlotte, Phelps will head to Colorado for three weeks of high-altitude training, then return to his home pool in Baltimore for a meet put on by the club he co-owns with Bowman. Then, it's the national championships at Irvine, Calif., which will serve as trials for both the Pan Pacific Championships in August and next year's world championships in Shanghai, China.

"By the time we get to Irvine, we'll have a really clear picture of what we want him to do at worlds," Bowman said. "That will have a large part to do with what he does at the Olympics. "This summer is really the time where, by the end of it, we're going to have to have a clear plan."


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