- Michael Phelps stood in line patiently for his name to be announced along with the rest of the U.S. swim team, wearing a baggy blue shirt and black Speedo hat, turned sideways in his typical casual style. When his name was finally called, the crowd inside the Indiana University Natatorium roared with appreciation and Phelps smiled a goofy grin and raised his arms in thanks.
The look on his face could have been interpreted any number of ways, but one of them seemed obvious: It was nice, once again, to have people interested in him for what he did in the pool, not out of it.
Phelps' performance at the U.S. nationals last week was a success on several levels. Not only did he qualify for the FINA world championships in three events, including setting a world record in the 100-meter butterfly (50.22 seconds), but he also gave people something to talk about besides whom he's dating and whether he had permanently damaged his reputation after he was photographed holding a bong at a South Carolina party after the Beijing Olympics.
Phelps wasn't asked a single bong-related question during the week, the first meet where that has happened since his return, and the crowd in Indianapolis was as rabid as ever each time he swam, filling the natatorium to capacity each night he was in a final.
"I felt like some things were finally coming together," the Fells Point resident said.
Subway, the fast-food sandwich chain, even rolled out a new ad campaign featuring Phelps, letting the world know that a meatball sandwich with jalapenos helps fuel his intense workouts.
The only real setback during the week was a sore neck that kept him out of the 100-meter freestyle, an event he had hoped to swim as part of his transition to the sprint events.
"I was definitely disappointed, but I know there will be a lot more 100 freestyles in the future," Phelps said.
He was back in the pool the next day, swimming without pain, doing a 4,000-meter workout to tinker with his stroke and his turns in preparation for a trip to Rome in two weeks.
"He needs a tiny bit of training the next couple days to help him finish his 200s a little better," said Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman. "But his neck is a nonissue at this point."
Phelps' world record in the 100-meter butterfly wasn't a huge surprise, considering that he nearly broke Ian Crocker's four-year-old record three weeks ago at the Canada Cup in Montreal without shaving and tapering, but it was obvious it gave Phelps a sense of satisfaction.
FINA's decision to allow swimmers to wear nonpermeable rubber suits made by Arena, Jaked and blueseventy in competition for the rest of the year has clearly irked Phelps, although he repeatedly refused to talk about it. He conceded that something was motivating him at this meet but said he wanted to keep it to himself.
"That's going to stay inside of me," Phelps said. "You guys can ask all day, but that's going to stay inside of me."
The 24-year-old has a lucrative contract with Speedo, maker of last year's fast suit, the LZR Racer, and competing in it is thought to put him at a bit of a disadvantage in terms of speed. That made his world record all the more impressive.
"I know how important that record has been to him," said Mark Schubert, director of USA Swimming. "It's been a big challenge. That record stood for a long time, which I think says a lot about it. The suit technology has changed, but Michael broke it in a LZR."
Schubert said he wasn't that surprised to see Phelps get back to top form so quickly, even if Phelps and Bowman had their doubts it could happen when they began training five months ago.
"I think Michael took a well-deserved break [after Beijing], a substantial period of time, but he has such a good background, I don't think it takes him as long to get back in shape as when he was younger," Schubert said.
Bowman acknowledged that he wasn't sure whether Phelps would be ready to break a world record this year but that it was all the more satisfying when he did because it meant he has broken one every year since he was 15, except for 2005.
"I kind of throw out 2005 because of everything that went on," Bowman said, alluding to Phelps' post-Olympic time off, when he was charged with driving while intoxicated.
Phelps is attending the ESPYs this week in Los Angeles, hoping to win one for the first time in his career (he's nominated in multiple categories) and then he'll join the team in Italy for training camp. The world championships begin July 26. After Beijing, Phelps promised his mother, Debbie, that he would give her a trip to Rome as a gift, and despite a bumpy few months, he has now accomplished it.
"I'm excited to go over there," Phelps said. "I know my mom is looking forward to it. Someone actually gave me a book on Rome about sightseeing. I was like, 'Well, I'm probably not going to have too much time to use it. I'm going to be swimming the whole time.' "