CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Michael Phelps looked more relaxed than he's ever been. He smiled for the cameras. He joked around with the other swimmers. Then it was time to dive in.
He was back in his comfort zone.
The winningest Olympian ever returned to the pool Friday morning for his first meet since Beijing, eager to move on from the embarrassment of being photographed using a marijuana pipe.
Phelps cruised to the finals of his first two events at the Charlotte UltraSwim, where all eyes - and cameras - were focused on the iconic athlete who won eight gold medals in China.
"He said something to me like, 'Do I really have five cameras in my face for the Charlotte UltraSwim? I didn't even have this for the Olympics,'" said Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach.
These cameras, he didn't mind.
"I'm happy to be back, happy to be racing again," Phelps said. "Tonight is going to be my first final I've had since Beijing. We'll see how it goes."
Going out in the final preliminary heat of the 200-meter freestyle, Phelps got progressively faster with each lap and touched in 1 minute, 50.46 seconds, just behind Davis Tarwater's time of 1:50.21. Olympian Peter Vanderkaay, swimming in the next-to-last heat, also edged Phelps in 1:50.26.
But Bowman was very pleased with Phelps' performance, especially coming off a nine-month layoff from competition - by far the longest of his career.
"As far as I'm concerned, I would accept that as a good prelim swim for any meet," the coach said. "I'm very happy with it."
About an hour later, Phelps returned for the prelims of the 100 butterfly. He won his heat in 53.41 and finished third overall behind Tyler McGill (52.93) and Corney Swanepoel (53.13).
"I think there's definitely more in the tank," Bowman said. "Hopefully he can come back tonight and do a little bit better time."
Phelps had planned a long layoff after Beijing to cash in on his Olympic triumph, but he had to sit out even longer after the infamous photo was published by a British tabloid in early February.
Even though no criminal charges were filed, USA Swimming gave Phelps a three-month suspension from competition. At first, he wasn't even sure if he wanted to return to the pool. But, after going into virtual seclusion for nearly a month, he had an epiphany one Sunday morning: Yes, he did want to keep swimming until the 2012 Olympics.
The Charlotte UltraSwim is his first step toward London.
Phelps hardly said a word on his way to the pool.
"To me," Bowman said, "that means he might have been a little bit nervous. I think now he seems like his normal self. It's good to get the first one done.
"You just don't know what's going to happen. That's when you get the most nervous, when you can't predict what's going to happen. Now he had a feel for where he is little bit."
Phelps certainly looked at ease when he stepped on the deck, smiling as fans, parents and even some swimmers whipped out their cameras to get a shot of him.
After getting out of the warm-up pool, he felt a small hole in the back of his jammer suit. That was a source of amusement as he headed for the starting block.
"I was hoping it wasn't going to rip when I bent down at the start," Phelps said, smiling. "But it was all good. We got that all straightened out and fixed."
He came out in a gray hoodie, tennis shoes and those ever-present ear plugs, fiddling around with his music as he waited to swim. He wore a white swim cap with "NBAC" written across the sides - North Baltimore Aquatic Club.
Another Olympian, Aaron Peirsol, gave Phelps a wink and a pat on the shoulder as he walked by on the way to his heat.
Phelps continued to yuk it up as he got behind the starting blocks, a striking change from the fierce-looking game face he displayed before every race in Beijing. Finally, though, he went into his familiar routine.
He wiped down the starting block with a towel. Then he stretched out each leg on the block. He adjusted his goggles. He stepped up, bent over and flapped his arms wildly three times.
Then, he was off.
"I'm sure his focus wants to remain at the pool," Peirsol said. "That's certainly where he's going to be most comfortable right now."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.