- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 12, 2009

BALTIMORE | Michael Phelps has served his penalty, learned who his real friends are and put up with plenty of ridicule over that infamous photo showing him inhaling from a marijuana pipe.

The swimmer who won eight gold medals at Beijing is ready to compete again, but there’s still a lot of work to do after the longest layoff of his career.

The same could be said about his image outside the pool.

Will fans remember him as the iconic figure who left China with all that precious metal around his neck? Or will they perceive him as a petulant party boy who showed again that he’s incapable of handling post-Olympic fame?

“There’s a picture on the Internet that’s burned into people’s minds of him with a bong in his mouth,” said Gene Grabowski, a senior vice president with D.C.-based Levick Strategic Communications, who works with high-profile clients in need of an image makeover. “That photographic evidence will live forever on the Internet. As unfair as that may seem, human beings can’t get over that image in their minds. He’ll forever be associated with that.”

Granted, Phelps’ perception issues pale in comparison to someone like Manny Ramirez, who just received a 50-game suspension from Major League Baseball after testing positive for a banned substance. And it’s not as if Phelps is constantly running afoul of the law (see: troubled football player Adam “Pacman” Jones).

But Phelps is unlikely to be seen quite the way as was in the giddy days after Beijing, where he took down the most hallowed of Olympic records - Mark Spitz’s seven golds at the 1972 Munich Games - and also became the winningest Olympian with 14 victories.

One little photo, apparently snapped with a cell phone camera after Phelps popped in on a college house party in South Carolina three months after his Olympic triumph, sent his carefully scripted life into chaos.

He went into virtual seclusion for nearly a month. He wasn’t sure whether he even wanted to keep swimming. Some days, he just stayed in bed instead of going to the pool to train.

“I just backed off and let him know I was there and I loved him,” said Bob Bowman, Phelps’ longtime coach. “I wasn’t really sure he should feel good for the first part of all that. Know what I mean? He had to work through it. We were there for him. We were not going to throw him out. We tried to help him any way we could. But he had to deal with it. This was his thing.”

Shortly after the photo was published in a London tabloid - on Super Bowl Sunday, of all days - USA Swimming handed Phelps a three-month suspension. In all likelihood, the governing body factored in his past indiscretion, a drunken-driving arrest shortly after he won six golds and two bronzes at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Phelps went into a shell, waiting nearly a month before deciding that he wanted to follow his plan all along, to compete through the 2012 London Games.

The first step in this last phase of his career begins this weekend when he races in five events at a Grand Prix meet in Charlotte, N.C. - his first competition in almost nine months.

“I’ve never had a break like I did after Beijing,” Phelps said. “I’m feeling good in the water. I’m swimming some decent times in practice. But I have no idea what to expect in a meet. I’m just going in with an open mind and see what happens.”

He insists that his life away from the pool is much more settled.

“I think I’m more laid back than I ever have been,” Phelps said during an interview with the Associated Press in his native Baltimore. “I just seem to go about things easier. Maybe it’s because of everything I’ve been through. Maybe it’s just me getting older and more mature.”

But in some ways, Phelps said, he was just living out the childhood he never had.

“It was probably the first time I’ve ever really been able to be a kid. Ever,” Phelps said. “My friends were like, ‘Do you want to go to Vegas.’ Oh sure, I’ve never been to Vegas. ‘Do you want to go to a playoff game in Miami for the Ravens?’ I’m like, ‘Sure, why not? I have nothing else to do.’ ”

And, of course, he was persuaded to go out on the town when he visited the University of South Carolina back in November. That’s one he would like to have back, though it really helped him see more clearly.

“This just really makes you wonder who your real friends are,” Phelps said. “When you’re going through the good times, there are tons of people there. When you go through bad times, some people fade. Your friends are there with you every step of the way. I’ve really been able to see who was there and see who my real friends are.”

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