- The Washington Times - Friday, May 15, 2009

CHARLOTTE, N.C. | Michael Phelps wanted to bring more attention to swimming.

He’s certainly doing that.

Phelps’ accomplishments in the pool - and shaky judgment on dry land - has brought plenty of notoriety to what has always been a once-every-four-years sport.

On Thursday, he caught an early morning flight for his first meet since winning a record eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics. He’ll be competing in front of capacity crowds and media from as far away as Japan, France and Britain - hardly the norm for a Grand Prix meet in a non-Olympic year.

“With the positive and the negative things, there’s a lot more attention being brought to the sport,” Phelps said shortly after touching down in North Carolina. “That’s something this sport needs and something it deserves.”

Of course, he would’ve preferred the focus remain on his accomplishments in Beijing, not what he did during a party in right-down-the-road South Carolina three months after the Olympics. That’s where someone took that infamous photo of Phelps inhaling from a marijuana pipe, a picture that wound up on the front page of a British tabloid and led USA Swimming to give him a three-month suspension.

Phelps has crossed the threshold from superstar athlete to cultural icon. He’s recognized everywhere he goes and has become a fixture in the tabloids, though he insists nearly everything written about his life outside the pool - from supposed wild partying to an adventurous love life - is untrue.

“There are avenues on the Internet and other places where people can say anything they want to say and not have to back it up,” said Bob Bowman, Phelps’ longtime coach. “I’m just focused on the swimming, but we have learned some interesting things.”

More than 80 members of the media crowded into a hastily erected tent to hear from Phelps, who fielded serious questions from the BBC, French newspaper L’Equipe and Japan’s TV Asahi. He was good-natured when a hefty local radio host challenged him to race.

“You could probably take me right now,” Phelps quipped, breaking into a smile.

He’s eager to get the focus back on swimming, and the Charlotte Ultraswim will be his first chance to begin developing a new program for the London Olympics.

Phelps will swim two of the five individual events he won in Beijing, with particular attention being paid to the 100-meter freestyle and 100 backstroke. He has the ninth-fastest time ever in the 100 free, and only three swimmers have gone faster in the 100 back - world record holder Ryosuke Irie of Japan and fellow Americans Ryan Lochte and Aaron Peirsol.

Phelps will be looking for some extra speed in the 100 free, debuting a straight-arm stroke that should increase his speed but is more tiring than the traditional bent-at-the-elbow motion.

After that infamous photo came out, Phelps wasn’t even sure if he wanted to keep swimming. He went into virtual seclusion for nearly a month, then woke up one weekend morning suddenly realizing that he wanted to keep going through the next Olympics.

“I was the only one who could make that decision,” Phelps said. “It didn’t matter how bad Bob wanted me to swim or my mom wanted me get back in the water. The only thing that mattered is how bad I wanted it, and to make sure I still wanted it.”

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