Low-key return for 'nervous' Phelps

A smiling Michael Phelps took his first strokes towards the 2012 London Olympics by returning to competition yesterday at the Charlotte UltraSwim Grand Prix after a tumultuous nine-month layoff.

As Phelps stepped on to the pool deck at the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center, there were signs much has changed since he last appeared on the starting blocks at the Beijing Olympics, where he won a record eight gold medals.

He stripped off his warm-up clothes on Friday to reveal a more muscular physique while a bodyguard, that Phelps's coach Bob Bowman described as "ex-military", stood watch over the 23-year-old swimmer. Most of all Phelps appeared ecstatic to be back in the pool following a layoff that included a three-month suspension from USA Swimming after he was photographed inhaling from a pipe used for smoking marijuana.

Despite coming off the longest break of his career, Phelps said he would approach the meet the same as every other and never strayed from his well-documented pre-race routine.

He sat stoically on the pool deck listening to music then joked with spectators sitting in the front row before climbing on to the blocks from the left side. He then wildly swung his long arms, loudly slapped his back and settled into his start position for the 200m freestyle heat.

Fourth after the opening 100, Phelps moved to third after 150 and charged home second in one minute 50.46 seconds behind Davis Tarwater, well off his world record of 1:42.96 set winning one of his eight golds in Beijing. An hour later Phelps was back in the pool, winning his heat in the 100m butterfly with the third best time of 53.41.

"I was pretty happy with it," a scruffy Phelps said. "I was joking going into the race, maybe 10 seconds off my best time would be all right for a morning swim. I'm happy to be back, happy to be racing again. Tonight is going to be the first final I've had since Beijing, we'll see how it goes."

Bowman also liked what he saw from his prize pupil but thought Phelps had a case of nerves before his first swim. "As far as I'm concerned I would accept that as a good prelim swim at any meet," said Bowman. "I like the way he swam the last three 50s faster, I think there is definitely more in the tank. He was real quiet so that means to me he might have been a little nervous.

"Now he seems normal, get the first one done. You just don't know what's going to happen. I think that's when we most get nervous when we can't predict what's going to happen. Now he has feel for where he is."

Today Phelps is scheduled to go in the 50m freestyle and the 100m backstroke, finishing off tomorrow with the 100m freestyle. Phelps's choice of events signals a change in tactics as he turns his focus to the build-up to the 2012 Olympics, with a new emphasis on shorter distance events.