BALTIMORE (AP) – When Michael Phelps was at his lowest, unsure if he wanted to return to swimming, he sat down with a pen and a piece of paper.

“I wrote out the pros and cons of swimming,” he said, “and quitting.”

In the end, swimming won out. Phelps returned to what he does best. Now, he’s finished serving a three-month suspension that was doled out by USA Swimming after a picture surfaced in a British tabloid showing him inhaling from a marijuana pipe.

Tuesday was the final day of his suspension. Phelps marked it like any other day: He woke up late and headed to the pool.

“I had no idea,” he told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview.

Phelps admitted the fallout from the infamous photo made him think twice about whether he wanted to stay in the public eye.

“There were days I would just come and warm up and say, ‘I’m not feeling it.’ I would just go home,” he said. “If I wanted to swim slow, I would swim slow. If I didn’t want to come (to practice), I wouldn’t come. If I woke up and didn’t feel like going in and working out, I would stay in bed and watch TV.”

But after taking that sheet of paper, drawing a line down the middle, and writing the advantages of swimming on one side and the disadvantages on the other, Phelps got back on course.

“What am I doing even thinking about quitting?” he asked himself. “I’m 23 years old. I’m not retiring at 23. I have four more years to my career. I still have things I want to accomplish.”

Phelps called longtime coach Bob Bowman on March 1 – Bowman remembers the day vividly – and said simply, “I’m doing it.”

“I was not really concerned whether he would quit or not,” Bowman said. “I was concerned that if he did quit, that he did it for the right reasons. Otherwise, it would just be a joke. I have told him, ‘You’ve done all there is to do. If you quit today, you’re the greatest of all time. You can walk away.’ But I did think it would be bad if he walked away because of this thing. He should go on his own terms.”

He’ll return to competition next week at a meet in Charlotte, N.C.

It will be his first time swimming competitively since winning eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics.

“I’m happy to be back in the water and be back in semi-shape,” said Phelps, who’s lost almost 20 pounds in last two months. “I’m sort of getting back into racing shape and getting ready to race my first race since Beijing. We’ll see how it goes.

“I’m happy to have some structure back in my life,” he added.

In Beijing, Phelps broke Mark Spitz’s 36-year-old record of seven gold medals and became the winningest Olympian ever with 14 golds. But the photo of him attending a party in South Carolina during a lengthy break from training cost him one major sponsor and threatened to ruin his image.

“It was a stupid mistake that I made,” he said during an interview on the deck of the pool at Loyola College in his native Baltimore. “But I’ll have what I’ve accomplished in and out of the pool for the rest of my life. I’m satisfied with what I’ve done and happy with what I’ve done.”

Phelps said the whole experience has “shown me who my real friends are. It’s also given me a lot of time to think. Pretty much since Beijing ended, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do.”

Once he got that resolved, Phelps returned to the plan all along – to keep swimming through the 2012 London Olympics. Although he’s not going to attempt eight gold medals again, he will continue to do a program that would be exhausting to most swimmers.

In Charlotte, he’ll swim five events: the 50-meter freestyle, 100 free, 200 free, 100 backstroke and 200 butterfly. Only two were on his record-breaking program in Beijing, the 200 free and 200 fly.

“I’m feeling good in the water and swimming some decent times in practice,” Phelps said. “But I have no idea what to expect in the meet. I’m going in open minded.”

As for his life away from the pool, Phelps wouldn’t discuss tabloid reports that he’s dating Miss California, Carrie Prejean, who made headlines of her own last month when she finished runner-up in the Miss USA pageant. Some thought her opposition to legalizing same-sex marriage, which came in response to a question, may have cost her the title.

“She’s a friend of mine,” Phelps said. “But my private life, I want to keep to myself.”

That said, he can certainly sympathize with what Prejean is going through.

“It’s tough,” he said. “I’m sure it’s not fun for her. But we’re in America. We have freedom of speech. If she feels that way, she can say it.”

As for tabloid reports of his supposedly heavy partying, Phelps rolled his eyes and said nearly everything written about him was false. Specifically, he denied a report detailing a wild night in New York City.

“The only thing I can do is laugh about it,” he said. “Come on, I do have some common sense. People can say whatever they want. That’s just how it is.”

Not that he hasn’t had some high-profile stumbles in his life. After the Athens Olympics, where he won six gold medals and two bronzes, Phelps pleaded guilty to driving while impaired.

“I know I have not been perfect by any means,” he said. “But I have learned from all of my mistakes. That’s all you can ask for.”

Phelps worked out for more than three hours Thursday, even giving a brief glimpse of the new stroke he’ll try out in the 100 free, a windmill motion with his arms that Bowman hopes will provide more speed. He endlessly picked on one of his five training partners, fellow Olympian Katie Hoff, and needled Bowman when the coach gave out some wrong information about the next day’s schedule. “At least the athletes know what we’re doing,” Phelps said sarcastically.

“It’s the old me, the normal me,” he said. “I’m coming in, working hard and taking steps toward my goals.”

And that sheet of paper? He wouldn’t reveal what was on it, and there’s no need for the tabloid media to go through his trash looking for it.

“That,” he said, breaking into the sly grin of someone who’s learned some valuable lessons about life in the public eye, “went right into the shredder.”

AP-ES-05-05-09 1815EDT

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