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Phelps's chance to make the pool the center of attention again

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Swimmer Michael Phelps competes at Charlotte UltraSwim 2009 Friday morning.

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Michael Phelps was back in the pool today competing in Charlotte. It's the first time he's raced since winning eight gold medals and since a photo of him with a marijuana bong surfaced. He's reaped praise for his Olympic feat and apologized for what he calls regrettable behavior. Now is Phelps's first chance to once again make his performance in the pool the center of attention, but that may not be so easy. The white-capped swimmer that dozens of fans and press are focusing their cameras on doesn't need an introduction, but he gets one anyway. "Phelps in lane 4 is the league record, U.S. Open record, American record and World record holder in this event," reels off the announcer. Phelps is swimming in the 200 meter freestyle preliminary heat that will determine his placement in tonight's finals. He spent the few minutes before the race with his earphones on, his head down, trying not to notice the dozens of fans watching him a few feet away. Danae Blaaks and her 8 year-old daughter are two of them. "She knows how many medals, every race he's won. And she's written letters to him and after that she started swimming backstroke at the local Y," says Blaaks. Yesterday, Phelps sat opposite a different audience - about fifty reporters who came from across the world to not only see him swim, but hear what he had to say about a spotlight that has at times been unwelcome. "I'd like to say I'm out here in Charlotte because Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian of all-time, but that's not the case," says Chris Mitchell, the swimming commentator for the BBC World Service. He flew in from London for the Charlotte UltraSwim. "The reason I'm here is because it was a British newspaper who broke the story, broke the photograph if you like of Michael Phelps with a bong. And that's generated a lot of interest," explains Mitchell. One reporter asked Phelps if he thought people had forgiven him for the bong picture. "It's a question I should be asking you guys. I don't know," replied Phelps. "As I said before it's a bad judgment and a very stupid mistake I made and something I'll continue to learn from." But for the most part, Phelps focused on the future. After a few weeks of indecision, Phelps has decided to go ahead and train for the Olympics in 2012. "I love to swim and that's why I came back and that's what I'm focused on. I have goals ahead of me that I want to accomplish and that's all that's on my mind right now," said Phelps. The Charlotte UltraSwim is Phelps's first step to the games in London. It's also the first time Phelps will have since Beijing to let the swimming do the talking. Kelly Burgess has just paid $80 for this weekend's events, all for her nine year old son she calls a swimming fanatic. "He loves Cullen Jones, and Michael Phelps, and this is awesome for him," says Burgess. But she had a hard time explaining a marijuana bong to her son. "My son actually has sharks and he named them Aaron Piersol, Michael Phelps and Cullen Jones. And he changed the Michael Phelps's sharks name back to shark because he said he made some bad choices. And he was really upset about it," says Phelps. Bianca Bernardo flew in from Boston to see her favorite Olympians. Bernardo says people need to get over the photo. "Parents flip out, but I think he's doing whatever any ordinary kid did. He just has to be a little smarter about it," explains Bernardo. Phelps will be swimming the 200 meter freestyle and 100 meter butterfly tonight. He'll race in two more finals events between tomorrow and Sunday. This morning's preliminary heats were sold out. And meet officials expect another 800 people to fill the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center for tonight and tomorrow's events.