MESA, Ariz. -- The Michael Phelps redemption, forgiveness and understanding tour began in a small tent behind the grandstand of a high school aquatics center here Wednesday, where the 29-year-old swimmer insisted that he has learned from his mistakes, looked within himself and finally found true happiness.
And thus on Thursday, when he returns to competition for the first time since his September arrest for driving while intoxicated, he says he will do so with a sense of excitement and enthusiasm he hasn't felt since before the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
"I did more growing up in the past eight months than I ever have in my life," Phelps said Wednesday. "I'm in a better place and a better state of mind mentally, emotionally, spiritually, everything."
Phelps' words were hardly a surprise. They are the path any seasoned publicist would suggest a client follow in hopes of rebuilding a brand and restoring public faith. But the emotion, sentiment and detail with which Phelps spoke for 40 minutes was eye-opening coming from someone who has never particularly enjoyed lengthy media sessions and introspective revelations. Sure, both he and coach Bob Bowman wore T-shirts and shorts and toted water bottles covered with the "MP" logo, a reminder not only of the new line of swimwear Phelps has designed but the importance of restoring the shine to the Phelps brand as quickly as possible. But with each question and subsequent answer, the 22-time Olympic medalist sounded like someone who had been genuinely humbled and might actually have learned a thing or two about himself during a six-week stint at an inpatient comprehensive treatment program at the end of 2014.
"Have I screwed up?" he said. "Yeah. A lot. I know I've hurt a lot of people. And it's been terrible."
On Sept. 30, police pulled Phelps over for speeding and crossing the double yellow line while driving through Baltimore's Fort McHenry Tunnel. Police said Phelps registered a 0.14 blood alcohol level, nearly twice Maryland's legal limit of 0.08, and was driving 84 mph in a 45 mph zone. In December, he pleaded guilty to the charges, his second DUI conviction in less than 10 years. The judge sentenced Phelps to probation while imploring him to get his life in order or end up in jail.
On Wednesday, in Phelps' first lengthy comments since the arrest, he apologized and accepted "full responsibility" for his actions. He then said he would respect USA Swimming's decision and not seek reinstatement for this summer's world championships in Kazan, Russia. A handful of Phelps' USA teammates had asked USA Swimming to reinstate Phelps. And USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus had suggested there was a path through which Phelps might be reinstated. But Phelps said Wednesday he doesn't want to be a distraction, ending such speculation.
Then the swimmer revealed -- almost in passing -- that he looked forward to joining his U.S. teammates next summer in Rio, confirming the long-held suspicion that Phelps would attempt to compete in the 2016 Games. Then he began opening up about his personal struggles and what he has learned about himself in the past eight months. He said the process hasn't been easy. The first week after the arrest, Phelps said, he didn't leave his room. But then something clicked. He knew he had to get help and he began to embrace the opportunity to better understand himself and the mistakes he had made.
"Being able to go through some of the challenging things I went through, I found myself walking taller and smiling and being more happy every day," he said. "Just being me and accepting me for who I am. I think for a long time I looked at myself as a swimmer and that was it.
"It was tough to go through that whole process. But ever since then, I've been excited about who I am in the pool and out of the pool. That was a big step for me to go through. Once I went through that, there was no turning back. Now I'm so happy with where I am I would never want to change."
Of course it is Phelps' actions -- over the coming days, weeks, months and years -- that will reveal whether he truly has changed, or if Wednesday was just another masterful performance. We will ultimately judge Phelps not by what he says in an interview or by the number of medals he potentially wins in Rio, but rather by the absence of his name in any future police reports. Or by not seeing his face splashed across social media after yet another questionable swimmer-out-of-water decision. Phelps knows there are those who will hear his comments Wednesday and roll their eyes. He knows that his choices in the past mean he won't get the benefit of the doubt in the future. But he intends to prove the skeptics wrong.
"Everyone has the right to believe what they want," he said. "To me, I know how I am now and how I feel now when I wake up every day. Of course I'd like to show everybody in the world that I am in a different place. But I understand it's going to take a lot of time for me to be able to prove that I'm different. This week is the first week I can start that. And hopefully people can really see me for who I am and they can accept that. And if they can't, well, that's their choice."
Perhaps no words carried more weight during Wednesday's interview than those of Bowman, Phelps' longtime coach. Bowman said that after Phelps' September arrest, he was leery of any suggestion that treatment would help the swimmer change. "No one was more skeptical than me," Bowman said. "It was going to be hard to convince me that anything would lead back to someone we would be proud of." But Phelps phoned Bowman during his treatment, and the coach visited Phelps at his treatment center, where Bowman sensed something was in fact different.
"I just had no doubt that he had changed in a way that was super meaningful," Bowman said. "It wasn't just doing this because he had to. And he's done this every day since he's been back. That's the truth -- and nobody has been harder on him than me."
Phelps said the ordeal has brought him closer to his family than he has ever been. His mother, sister and fiancée plan on attending this week's meet in Mesa, where everyone will discover for the first time the effect Phelps' supposed transformation has on his performance in the pool. Both he and Bowman seemed confident on Wednesday, suggesting the Olympic medalist has been doing things in training that he hasn't accomplished in almost eight years.
"The difference in training is he is engaged now," Bowman said. "No. 1, he shows up, and No. 2, things happen when he shows up."
Phelps retired after the 2012 London Olympics, swearing he would never compete again. Twenty months later, he found himself in Mesa, insisting he missed the sport and had rededicated himself to greatness. Swimming was fun again, he said. The comeback was something he wanted to do for himself. Then the arrest happened. The suspension. His time in recovery. And now Phelps finds himself in Mesa yet again, this time acknowledging he plans on competing in the 2016 Olympics while sharing his story of personal transformation. He insists this time is different. He has learned from the past. Time will tell.
"With everything that I've been through in the last eight months, I can honestly say it has changed my life," he said. "I'm happy every day now. There are certain things I realize I can and can't control. The only things I can pay attention to are the things I can control. I don't get frustrated when things don't go my way. I just have a completely happier outlook on a lot of things."