Sporting a goatee and an old-school swimsuit, Michael Phelps picked up right where he left off in Beijing.
Two races. Two wins.
The world's greatest swimmer left everyone — and everything — in his wake Friday night at his first meet since a triumphant Olympics. That nine-month layoff? No problem. That embarrassing photo of him using a marijuana pipe? Time to let that one go, too.
None of it seemed to matter when Phelps dove in for two events less than an hour apart at the Charlotte UltraSwim. He started with a victory in the 200-meter freestyle and came right back to touch first in the 100 butterfly, both with times that easily broke the meet records he set three years ago.
Considering Phelps hadn't bothered to shave down and he wore a 2004 model leg suit — a real antique in the fast-changing swimsuit world — it was clear the kickoff to this final stage of his career is starting way ahead of schedule.
"I was real excited," Phelps said. "It didn't matter how I felt, I was excited just to race. That's the most important thing. I still have that drive and that passion to race."
Does he ever.
Coach Bob Bowman, usually Phelps' harshest critic, was downright giddy when he saw the times. He figured Phelps would be doing well to swim the 200 free in just under 1 minute, 48 seconds. He went nearly 2 seconds faster, even giving a little sample of the straight-arm, wind-milling stroke he plans to use in the shorter races as he surged toward the wall with a time of 1:46.02.
In the fly, Phelps swam the outward lap in 24.6 and made the return in 27.1 for a total time of 51.72. Doing some quick math on his worksheet, Bowman calculated that both laps were exactly 0.6 seconds faster than what Phelps did to win the gold medal in Beijing.
Clearly, he hasn't lost that remarkable sense of timing.
"Mentally, he's the best ever," Bowman said. "We make a big deal about his physical (attributes), and it's there. But it's the way he approaches the race, the way his brain works in competition. That's the way you would like every swimmer to think."
Phelps won these same two events at Beijing, part of his record-breaking haul of eight gold medals. He became a cultural icon, doing everything from hosting "Saturday Night Live" to getting grilled on "The Colbert Report," but his career ran into an unplanned hurdle when 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 his London farewell.
"I'm definitely ahead of where I thought I would be," Phelps said. "After taking that much of a break, I didn't know what to expect or where to really put myself. So I'm very pleased. This is an excellent start to hopefully building off this and getting ready for the summer."
He has three more events in Charlotte, none of them holdovers from his Olympic program. He'll swim the 50 free and 100 backstroke on Saturday, and close it out with the 100 free on Sunday.
After the turmoil of the past three months — his suspension ended just last week — Phelps was back in his comfort zone. During the morning preliminaries, he smiled for the cameras, joked around with the other swimmers and paused to sign a few autographs.
The only thing that caught him off guard was the amount off media attention, including reporters from as far away as Britain, France and Japan.
"It's kind of weird," he said. "I feel like there's more pressure than Beijing. I didn't even see this many cameras in Beijing."
These cameras, he didn't mind.
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."
Phelps hardly said a word on his way to the aquatic center.
"To me, that means he might have been a little bit nervous," Bowman said. "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 a little bit."
There was only one minor glitch the whole day.
After getting out of the warm-up pool before his first prelim, Phelps felt a small hole in the back of his jammer suit. He couldn't stop laughing about it on his way to the blocks.
"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."
After that, it was business as usual.
"I could tell after that first prelim swim this morning that the switch was flipped," Bowman said. "It was at least half-flipped. Then tonight, after the 200 free, it was fully flipped. He swam that 100 fly like always, like normal."
In other words, better than anyone.