- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 19, 2009

CHARLOTTE, N.C. | Michael Phelps is heading to the mountains.

Eat. Sleep. Swim. That’s about all the winningest Olympian will be doing during his time at the U.S. training center in Colorado Springs.

He can’t wait.

“The next three weeks are going to be real important when we go to altitude,” Phelps said. “That’s going to be a big part of the summer.”

He already crossed the first major threshold of his post-Beijing career this past weekend, competing in five events at the Charlotte UltraSwim. Phelps won two and was runner-up in two others, losing to a couple of world-record holders. He swam only the preliminaries of his fifth event (50-meter freestyle), using it as training run for his new straight-arm stroke.

Considering Phelps had not raced since the Olympics - the nine-month layoff was by far the longest of his career - and he was coming off a wave of bad publicity over that infamous photo of him using a marijuana pipe, this was certainly an encouraging start to the final chapter in his master plan.

He hopes to conquer some new events and add even more gold to an already unprecedented collection before he hangs up the cap and goggles after the 2012 London Games.

“I’m happy to be back in the pool,” Phelps said. “I’m happy to have that first meet under my belt.”

He has been working out for only about two months, time spent mainly knocking off nearly 20 extra pounds he picked up during his all those television appearances, book signings and extracurricular activities - good and bad - after Beijing.

His rustiness showed in Charlotte. Phelps struggled with his starts and had to take a couple of extra strokes - one of which nearly caused him to crash into the wall on his flip turn - while losing to France’s Frederick Bousquet in the 100 free. While his upper body looked a bit more muscular, the result of a new weight-training regimen, a loss to Aaron Peirsol in the 100 backstroke showed his legs still need work.

But Phelps won with better-than-expected times in the 100 butterfly and 200 free, showing he’s not that far from returning to form.

“It’s very nice for Mike to remember what it’s like to race at the very top level,” said his coach, Bob Bowman.

After finishing his high-altitude work in Colorado, which should greatly improve his fitness, Phelps will swim a couple of meets next month: the Santa Clara Grand Prix in California on June 11 and the Quebec Cup in Montreal on June 18.

Then comes his first big test, the national championship at Indianapolis starting July 8. That meet will be used to pick the U.S. team for the world championships, which begin July 26 in Rome.

This year, 18 world records have fallen - most of them in a new wave of high-tech swimsuits that some believe are even faster than the Speedo LZR Racer, which dominated in 2008 and is Phelps’ choice in attire.

Phelps didn’t wear the LZR in Charlotte, going with 2004-era legsuits and jammers, and he didn’t bother to shave down, either. That’s not unusual - he likes to save his fastest suits for the biggest meets, which makes him feel even quicker when he gets in the water.

In the 100 free, for example, Phelps likely cost himself a few tenths of a second by swimming in an old-fashioned legsuit while every other finalist - Bousquet included - went with a suit that covered the upper body.

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