London 2012: Michael Phelps focused on pool after lost years

By Matt SlaterBBC sports news reporter

While I was writing this article, Michael Phelps re-posted a line from the popular "Notebook of Love" feed on the Twitter social media site.

"My life, my choices, my mistakes, my lessons, not your business," was the tweet that appealed to the world's greatest swimmer, a relatively simple declaration of independence, the kind of cod psychology you might find tattooed on a wayward footballer's back, possibly in Sanskrit.

But it was considerably more apposite than the 500 words I had written trying to explain Phelps' post-Beijing "lost years".

For those who turn the sound down on the swimming news in between Olympics, Phelps has been quite busy since he won so many medals in Beijing that he alone would have finished 10th in the medal table. Busy doing nothing, mainly.

"I was just super lazy," the American superstar said when I asked him why he started to lose races in 2009, a frayed thread in a cloak of invincibility that became a whacking great hole in 2010.

"I think I was just trying to figure out what I wanted to do, to see if I was going to commit myself to another four years or just hang up my suit.

"Once I rediscovered the passion, it was easy to come back.

"Physically it was painful, though, because I had taken some time off and then had a period when I wasn't really serious about it. But last summer I decided I was sick of getting beaten every time I went in the water.

"There have been lots of improvements over the last year and we're taking steps in the right direction."

Sounds simple, doesn't it? And when a man who has won 16 Olympic medals - 14 of them gold - tells you this, you believe him.

But there is more to this tale than the usual ebbs and flows of an athlete's enthusiasm for the hard work and personal sacrifices that sustain them.

Six months after winning eight of those gold medals, achieved in a week-long display of almost freakish ability at the 2008 Games, Phelps was the subject of the now defunct News of the World's first, and last, swimming scoop.

The paper had a picture of the then 23-year-old with his lips pressed against something that looked like the kind of smoking device usually seen in films about rites of passage at US colleges.

Phelps was forced to issue a remorseful statement that acknowledged "youthful and inappropriate" behaviour, but stopped short of an actual confession there was marijuana in his bong.

No criminal charges ensued but he was banned from competition for three months and Kellogg's, a major sponsor, decided to unhitch their brand from the Baltimore Bullet's.

Looking back on this episode now it seems incredibly inconsequential, but it was big news at the time and some commentators wondered if Phelps would ever return to competitive swimming.

Three years later, however, Phelps is heading to London with seven chances to stretch his lead at the top of the all-time list of multiple gold medal winners, and beat Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina's record of 18 Olympic medals in total.

Not bad for a man who spent two years "taking some time off" and only really knuckled down again last summer. But wouldn't it have been easier to just take two years off completely?

"No, it's better for me to learn from the decisions I make," the 27-year-old explained at Team USA's May get-together in Dallas.

"Everything I've done, I've been able to learn from - mistakes I've made in the pool, mistakes I've made out of the pool. That's how I've grown up.

"They haven't always been good times but I've learned from them."

There is, however, another element to Phelps' cathartic approach to rediscovering his mojo, and that is Ryan Lochte.

The flashy Floridian helped Phelps win relay golds at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, but began to emerge as his biggest rival at the 2009 World Championships.

Lochte did not beat Phelps per se, but his individual medley double looked more impressive than Phelps' butterfly brace.

A year later, the real breakthrough came when Lochte beat Phelps in the 200m individual medley at the US National Championships - it was his first major victory over swimming's $40m man.

Having achieved the unthinkable once, Lochte started to make a habit of it, beating Phelps into second place in the 200m freestyle and individual medley (IM) at the 2011 Worlds. He would also add the 400 IM on his way to collecting an armful of 'swimmer-of-the-year' titles.

Looking back on his results during this spell, Phelps says they were "a joke, just horrendous", but they served a purpose.

"I can't stand losing," he said. "Being on the receiving end of some of those defeats has definitely motivated me, because I hate to lose. I despise it."

Just how much Phelps dislikes the 'L' word became clear at the recent US Olympic trials in Nebraska.

Lochte got the first point on the board with a dominant showing in the 400 IM, but Phelps came back with thrilling wins in the 200 IM and freestyle. It felt like the natural order was being restored after a period of misrule.

Not that Lochte has finished his personal assault on Phelps' status as the world's greatest swimmer: no, that will continue in London and there will be few fiercer contests in the entire Games than the 200 and 400 IMs.

But the real Phelps is back, which is great because he will be gone again as soon as he has touched the wall in his final event, and this time for good.

"Throughout my career I've been all over the world, but all I've seen have been hotels and swimming pools," he said.

"So once I retire I want to travel and see what places are really about.

"I want to go over to England and see a Premier League game. I want to have some fun. That's definitely on my to-do list."

As I pointed out that this was another interview with a foreign sports star turning into a chat about our national game, Phelps let out the hearty laugh of a contented chap.

Somebody, dare I say, who knew their business, had learned from their mistakes and was happy with their choices.

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