Baltimore, May 6: Michael Phelps' three-month suspension from competition is over and he marked the occasion like any other day: He woke up late and headed to the pool.
Speaking exclusively, Phelps said he didn't even realize his suspension ended on Tuesday. Coach Bob Bowman couldn't resist making a joke, saying he planned to enter his star swimmer in a meet later that night.
"I had no idea," Phelps said of his ban, which was doled out by USA Swimming after a picture surfaced in a London tabloid showing him inhaling from a marijuana pipe.
He'll return to competition next week at Charlotte, North Carolina. It will be his first time swimming competitively since winning eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics.
"I'm happy to be back in the water and be back in semi-shape," said Phelps, who's lost almost 20 pounds (nine kilograms) in the last two months. "I'm sort of getting back into racing shape and getting ready to race my first race since Beijing. We'll see how it goes.
"I'm happy to have some structure back in my life." Phelps said he considered retiring from the sport after the picture surfaced. After all, he'd already broke Mark Spitz's 36-year-old record of seven gold medals in one games and became the most successful Olympian ever with 14 golds.
But after writing down the pros and cons of resuming his career, Phelps decided to get back in the water. He's not concerned what the photo did to his image.
"It was a stupid mistake that I made," he said during an interview on the deck of the pool at Loyola College in his Baltimore hometown. "But I'll have what I've accomplished in and out of the pool for the rest of my life. I'm satisfied with what I've done and happy with what I've done."
Phelps said the whole experience has "shown me who my real friends are. It's also given me a lot of time to think. Pretty much since Beijing ended, I didn't really know what I wanted to do."
After going into virtual seclusion for nearly a month after the photo surfaced, Phelps called Bowman on March 1 - the coach remembers the day vividly - and said simply, "I'm doing it."
"I was not really concerned whether he would quit or not," Bowman said. "I was concerned that if he did quit, that he did it for the right reasons. Otherwise, it would just be a joke. I have told him, 'You've done all there is to do. If you quit today, you're the greatest of all time. You can walk away.' But I did think it would be bad if he walked away because of this thing. He should go on his own terms."
His motivation restored, Phelps plans to keep swimming through the 2012 London Olympics. While he's not going to attempt eight gold medals again, he will continue to do a program that would be exhausting to most swimmers.
In Charlotte, he'll swim five events: The 50-meter freestyle, 100 free, 200 free, 100 backstroke and 200 butterfly. Only two were on his record-breaking program in Beijing, the 200 free and 200 fly.
"I'm feeling good in the water and swimming some decent times in practice," Phelps said. "But I have no idea what to expect in the meet. I'm going in open minded."
As for his life away from the pool, Phelps wouldn't discuss tabloid reports that he's dating Miss California, Carrie Prejean, who made headlines of her own last month when she finished runner-up in the Miss USA pageant. Some thought her response to a question about legalizing same-sex marriage may have cost her the title.
Phelps would only say the two "are good friends," but added that he can sympathize with what she's gone through since expressing her opposition to gay marriage.
As for tabloid reports of his heavy partying, Phelps rolled his eyes and said nearly everything written about him was false. Specifically, he denied a report detailing a wild night in New York City.
"I know I have not been perfect by any means," he said. "But I have learned from all of my mistakes. That's all you can ask for."