As Michael Phelps nears the end of a six-month suspension triggered by his second drunken driving offense, there is a possibility the 18-time Olympic gold medalist could see another, arguably harsher penalty reversed: his removal from the U.S. roster for this summer's world championships in Kazan, Russia.
USA Swimming suspended Phelps, 29, through early April after he was charged with driving under the influence in his hometown of Baltimore this past September. In addition to that suspension, Phelps and USA Swimming agreed the swimmer would not represent the United States at the 2015 World Championships.
Now it appears there is a chance that could change. USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus told ESPN.com on Tuesday that he and Phelps have had informal, preliminary conversations about a possible reinstatement.
"It's complicated, but there are ways in which it could happen," Wielgus said Tuesday. "There's a pathway for things to be reconsidered -- or considered."
Wielgus added any decision on a reinstatement proposal would not be up to him but instead would be reviewed by national team director Frank Busch and the USA Swimming executive committee.
USA Swimming spokesman Scott Leightman added, "At this point, it's premature to discuss any specifics about next steps."
Phelps, whose suspension ends April 6, has said he will return to competition at the Arena Pro Swim Series meet scheduled for April 15-18 in Mesa, Arizona.
On Tuesday, a representative from Phelps' management team declined to comment on the possibility of Phelps competing at the world championships. However, when two senior members of the U.S. national team were informed of Wielgus' comments, they supported Phelps' reinstatement.
Tyler Clary, who had qualified for the team in several events, agreed to add the 200 individual medley to his program after Phelps was dropped from the worlds team. Clary told ESPN.com on Tuesday he would have "no problem" giving up his 200 IM spot if Phelps were to be reinstated to the team. He said he made his feelings clear to both Phelps and the national team staff earlier this year.
"He's vital," Clary said. "I don't see myself as being a competitor at his level in the 200 IM, and I don't have the same chance of getting a medal.
"USA Swimming's six-month suspension was appropriate and strong enough to convey that USA Swimming doesn't condone that kind of behavior from any of its members. Removing Michael from the world championship team, however, will have a negative effect on our team, and taking the term of his punishment into consideration, the meet falls well outside of that time frame."
Veteran Olympian and national team member Natalie Coughlin said Tuesday in a text message to ESPN.com that she also supported the rationale for the six-month suspension but thought keeping Phelps off the worlds team was "overreaching."
"Not only do world championships fall outside the six-month suspension, but it also punishes his teammates, particularly those that would share a relay spot with him," Coughlin wrote. "We always want to have the best people racing, and he has proven himself to be the best, time after time.
"I was concerned with the 'slippery slope' nature of his removal. Furthermore, I was most concerned that Michael was being punished because of his celebrity status. I seriously doubt that anyone else would have received the same punishment if they did the same crime. All that being said, I am in no way condoning his behavior. What he did was dangerous and illegal. It's a miracle that no one was hurt. Michael is a great person who has made some serious mistakes."
Phelps qualified for the world championships in three individual events -- the 100 freestyle, 100 butterfly and 200 individual medley -- and presumably would have competed in one or more relays, whose lineups are determined by the coaching staff. Ryan Lochte, who, like Clary, was already on the worlds roster, replaced Phelps in the 100 free, and Tim Phillips was added to the team to swim the 100 fly.
Based on Phelps' times from the past season, when he came out of retirement to aim for a fifth Olympic appearance, his chances of making the Rio 2016 team appear excellent. Absence from the world championships wouldn't directly affect his Olympic qualification -- the U.S. team for Rio will be selected at Olympic trials next year -- but the world meet is the last important measuring stick against a full, international field before that time.
On Sept. 30, 2014, Phelps was stopped by Maryland Transportation Authority police, who clocked him going 84 mph in a 45 mph zone and crossing double lane lines. He flunked field sobriety tests, and his blood-alcohol level registered 0.14.
It was Phelps' second DUI offense in 10 years. (Phelps received probation before judgment for his 2004 arrest on Maryland's Eastern Shore.) USA Swimming sanctioned him, based on a clause in its code of conduct that references actions "detrimental to the image or reputation" of the federation. Phelps entered a 45-day inpatient rehabilitation program within a week of his arrest. He pleaded guilty to the DUI and related charges in December. He was sentenced to 18 months of supervised probation and ordered to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and refrain from drinking during the probation period.
He appeared contrite in his court appearance and referred to "recovery" in comments to reporters afterward. It was the first time he made an explicit reference to addiction issues in public.
During the suspension, Phelps has continued to train at his home club in Baltimore, and he attended the Austin Grand Prix meet in January as a fan.
Late this past month, Phelps announced his engagement to Nicole Johnson, a former Miss California, on social media.