SHANGHAI — Michael Phelps is anguished no more. After a frustrating year marked by losses, lack of motivation and fitness, and indecision about his future in the pool, the 14-time Olympic champion is happy to be working hard again.
Fueled by time standards known only to him and coach Bob Bowman, Phelps is at the world championships, an eight-day meet that will serve as the next-to-last chapter in his storied career. The ending will be written at next year's London Olympics.
"I kind of feel like my own self," he said Saturday at a jammed news conference held the day before swimming begins at the Oriental Sports Center's indoor pool. "I've been excited and happy to be around the pool."
That wasn't the case last year, when Phelps was more likely to be staring down a putt on the golf course than eyeing the black line on the bottom of a pool. He'd blow off training sessions, exasperating Bowman to the point of threatening their longtime working relationship.
Phelps' lack of interest followed a busy 2009, in which he cashed in on his Olympic fame and had his role-model image tarnished by an embarrassing photo of him using a marijuana pipe.
"The things I do in or out of the pool I have to take responsibility for," the 26-year-old swimmer said. "That's been a good learning experience over the last two years. Yeah, it hasn't been very fun."
Phelps turned up at the Pan Pacific championships last August and won five golds, but he wasn't in top shape and his confidence had waned. Shortly after, he made up his mind to get serious again and put in the daunting work required to be at his best for one more Olympics.
"It was taking charge of my own actions and deciding I wanted to do it myself, instead of Bob twisting my arm to get me to the pool everyday" a reflective Phelps said.
"It's funny how it works. When you do train, you actually swim well."
"Who knew?" Bowman interjected.
The coach was glad to see Phelps the goof-off go away.
"That is definitely gone," Bowman said. "The question is how long has it been gone and how long does it take to get back the other stuff, the physical part. In the last six months or so, he's been excellent. You just never know how he's going to end up."
Phelps plans what Bowman jokingly called a "small program" — the 200 freestyle, 100 and 200 butterflys and the 200 individual medley. He still owns the world records in both fly events. Bowman confirmed that Phelps will swim all three relays, too.
He'll get started Sunday as part of the U.S. 400-meter free relay, the most-anticipated event on the opening day of swimming. The French have a score to settle, with Russia in the mix, too.
Two years ago in Rome, Phelps and his teammates won the relay, with Russia second and France relegated to third. At the 2008 Olympics, American Jason Lezak overcame a big deficit in the last few strokes and touched eight-hundredths of a second ahead of Frenchman Alain Bernard, keeping Phelps' bid for eight golds intact.
"All the French guys have been staring me down," Lezak joked. "It's going to be a really tight race."
Phelps will renew more rivalries in the 200 free final on Tuesday. Awaiting him are teammate Ryan Lochte and Paul Biedermann of Germany, who trounced Phelps with a world-record time in a stunning upset in Rome. Of course, that was before FINA banned the high-tech suits that led to 43 records at those worlds.
"I hate to lose," Phelps reminded everyone. "He's someone who handed me a pretty good beatdown in 2009. It's going to be fun."
Lochte and Phelps will duel in the 200 IM, where Lochte is the defending world champion whose results last year made him the top American swimmer.
"What Michael did in 2008 is definitely going to go down in history, but that was three years ago," Lochte said. "Anything can happen. I know I'm definitely a better swimmer than in '08. We're going to put on a show."
Phelps' seven-event program in Shanghai is one less than he swam at the Beijing Olympics, where he burnished his legend as the greatest swimmer in history by winning eight gold medals.
A few months ago, Phelps pulled out all of his 14 Olympic golds from a "secret hiding spot" to look at them for what he said was just the second time.
"I don't really look at the past because I know there's so much I can do in the future," he said.
Phelps is already looking beyond the London Olympics, to a chlorine-free future that he recently mulled over with former swimmer Rowdy Gaines.
"It's going to be really weird to hang up the suit," he said. "All the memories, that was kind of hard to think about it. I got a year left. It's going to be a good year. I'll have fun."