Before he could dive into the pool at the UltraSwim meet in Charlotte last Friday morning, Michael Phelps had to skip over TV wires, nudge himself between two cameramen who were arguing about their positioning and navigate the swarm of fellow competitors who had lined the overcrowded pool deck of the Mecklenberg County Aquatic Center just to watch him swim a morning heat. Five minutes later the frenzied anticipation of his return to racing behind him—and his place in the 200-meter freestyle that night assured—Phelps stood in an adjacent room and pronounced himself, "Relaxed ... at peace ... home."
Yes, home. For Phelps, the pool's competitive crucible is more like the recliner by the fireplace. It is the one place where nobody grills him about how he's driving, who he's dating or what he's inhaling. To him, the water is the place without the sharks, the air outside the fishbowl. "This is my element," says Phelps. "This is my comfort zone."
In his first competition since the Beijing Olympics, where he racked up a record eight gold medals, Phelps last weekend won two of four events, debuted a new freestyle technique and reaffirmed that a damning photo had not diminished his fan appeal. "I had no idea what kind of shape I'd be in here," said Phelps, who has dropped 17 pounds since January to get back to his racing weight of 200. "As a starting point, it feels pretty good."
Despite having only 38 minutes between finals last Friday night, Phelps won the 200 free in 1:46.02, 3.06 seconds off his world record, and then the 100 butterfly in 51.72, 1.14 off his personal best. Phelps, who was unshaven and wore a five-year-old suit, also tried out a new stroke, swimming the last 15 meters of the 200 freestyle with straight arms, a windmill technique that taxes the shoulders but allows the arms to slice the water more efficiently. He's testing the technique as he ponders his program for the major competitions ahead—he's confirmed only that the 100 free is in and the 400 IM is out—with an emphasis on sprints. "It's like Tiger working on his putting and his pitching," Phelps says. "It completes the whole package. It's different. It's fun."
Using the windmill stroke, he qualified eighth, in 23.24, on Saturday morning in the heats of the 50 free, an event he will not swim in major meets but one he hopes will build his speed for the 100 free and improve his often mediocre starts. As planned, he scratched from the 50 final that evening to focus on another new event, the 100 backstroke, in which he finished second, .47 behind Olympic champion and world-record holder Aaron Peirsol. On Sunday, Phelps finished second in the 100 free, using a mix of the straight-arm stroke and his usual bent-arm technique.
His sport is still riding the Phelps wave. Last Thursday a premeet press conference that would normally struggle to lure the Durham Herald-Sun welcomed L'Equipe, Japan's TV Asahi and the BBC. In 2008 USA Swimming saw the largest annual increase in membership in its 29-year history, both in raw numbers (23,977) and percentage (12.2%), and early figures suggest it's on pace to approach those benchmarks again in 2009. Four days after Phelps won his eighth gold medal in Beijing, NBC Sports committed to televise the 2009 worlds in Rome this summer and the U.S. nationals through 2011. "This deal is unprecedented," says Mike McCarley, a vice president for NBC Sports' Olympics division. "Michael has taken swimming to a new level."
Phelps's performance in Beijing will long stand as a record, yet the 23-year-old's legacy may lie in the way he has extended interest in his sport beyond the Olympics. "A packed house nine months after the Games?" says Peirsol. "Full props to Michael, man. If people outside swimming are talking about him, that helps the rest of us."
After returning from Beijing, Phelps hosted Saturday Night Live, was a presenter at the MTV Video Music Awards and received honors from both Muhammad Ali and the Maryland Senate. He helped parody the show Grey's Anatomy by playing "Dr. McSwimmy" on Jimmy Kimmel's pre--Emmy Awards special and was name-dropped in the hip-hop song I'm So Paid by Akon featuring Lil Wayne and Young Jeezy ("Gold chains round my neck just like Michael Phelps"). As part of a monthlong auction to benefit the Robert F. Kennedy Center, people can bid on a swim lesson from Phelps along with a singing lesson from Aretha Franklin, a tour of the Air and Space Museum with John Glenn or a chance to hear the Dalai Lama with Richard Gere.
Phelps used his $1 million Olympic bonus from Speedo to create a foundation to promote water safety for kids. But on Feb. 1 the tabloid News of the World published a photo of him inhaling from a bong at a party at the University of South Carolina last November. Phelps—who later apologized for his "bad judgment"—was not charged with a crime, but USA Swimming suspended him from competition for three months. The layoff and fallout from the photo were wrenching for Phelps. "Some days he'd train for 20 minutes. Some days he wouldn't come [at all]," says Bob Bowman, his coach of 13 years. "That was the lowest I'd seen him." Phelps told Bowman that the sport might be better off without him. The coach responded in a language Phelps understood, with a series of text messages consisting only of goal times for two of his races.
Over the next month the pair spoke little during practice, discussing the future via more texts. Each time Phelps sent a pessimistic message, Bowman would reply only with race times. When Phelps typed back, "Nobody can go that fast" a few weeks later, Bowman knew his star pupil was once again ready to bite at the challenge.