LOS ANGELES -- Michael Phelps' day began before sunrise at a Baltimore hotel. There was practice in the pool where his Olympic dreams first began. A corporate event at Under Armour's global headquarters to launch a new ad campaign. And then a 5 1/2-hour cross-country flight to L.A. for a news conference to discuss his preparation for the Rio Games.
In the past, such interviews and corporate events would have built around the idea of perfection. Michael Phelps was an athlete unlike anything we had ever seen. In the water, he could do no wrong. Out of it, the public knew very little and Phelps preferred to keep it that way.
His interviews were often short, impersonal and rarely wavered from swimming. But in this final act the Phelps narrative has evolved. He has had no choice. And perhaps at no time was that more apparent than on Tuesday, in a pair of PR-driven events on opposite sides of the country.
In the morning in Baltimore, Phelps' hometown, he watched as Under Armour revealed a 90-second ad. In the commercial, there are gritty images of Phelps swimming, sleeping, climbing into a cold tub and kicking his feet above his face in dryland workouts. It's all set to the somber, introspective "Last Goodbye" by The Kills. There are lyrics like "I have no regrets ... for the past is behind me." There is no dialogue in the ad. Just the music. And Phelps training. Pushing. Thinking. The ad is emotional, reflective. When Phelps saw the ad for the first time, it brought him and fiancé Nicole Johnson to tears.
After the debut of the ad, Keenan Robinson, Phelps' trainer, put him through a 20-minute workout that typically takes twice as long. There was a staged Q&A with an Under Armour executive followed by interviews with more than 100 media from around the world. From there, Phelps' hopped onto a private jet, and after a cross-country flight stepped on the floor of UCLA's Pauley Pavilion where more journalists waited for a 34-minute Q&A as part of the U.S. Olympic Media Summit. It was Phelps' first appearance at the summit without his coach Bob Bowman by his side.
Below the retired jerseys of sports legends such as Bill Walton, Kareem and Reggie Miller, Phelps was an open book. He confessed how little he had trained before the London games in 2012. "I wanted nothing to do with the sport," he said. "I was finished. Ready to move on and retire. I didn't want to train anymore."
He discussed how much better he feels after not consuming an alcoholic drink since his second DUI arrest in September 2014. "I see a complete change in my body," he said. "I have a completely clear head. I don't have a headache, which is awesome. I'm actually happy every day. I'm able to be productive every day."
And in one of the most impersonal settings imaginable, he admitted how critical it had been in his recovery from alcohol addiction (Phelps spent 45 days in an inpatient facility in Arizona following his September 2014 DUI arrest) to repair his complicated relationship with his father, who divorced his mother when he was a child. "For me being able to have a relationship with my father somewhat is amazing," he said. "It's something I always wanted as a kid and never did have. Now we are able to communicate and we talk almost weekly."
There was little talk of actual swimming.
One question in the session dealt with what events Phelps planned to swim at Olympic Trials in June, but Phelps, who has never talked about an event schedule, brushed the question aside. He was open and revealing about everything else. When asked Tuesday night whether his medals from London meant anything less to him given the lack of effort he put toward them, Phelps insisted it made no difference. He appreciated all his medals the same. And then his eyes watered as he told the story of looking at his medals for the first time in several years when he and Johnson moved to Arizona last fall.
"I could remember back to every thought I had on the medal stand after each of those races," Phelps said. "Every little tiny thing. And that was the first time I had ever done that and those things had ever sunk in. And it felt pretty cool. For the first time I was able to look back on my career and be excited and proud of what I did. I had never had the chance to do that before."
For those who haven't spent time with Phelps over the past year, the candor might have seemed like a surprise. Or maybe even a bit of spin -- another stop on the Michael Phelps character redemption tour where there are millions of dollars at stake. You could almost see USOC officials shudder on Tuesday each time Phelps spoke of Under Armour, a rival of Nike, which is a main USOC sponsor. But even the largest of skeptics couldn't help but sense that perhaps Phelps needs these public therapy sessions as much as the reporters need their quotes.
Speaking about his struggles is perhaps another step in Phelps' recovery, another shackle from which he can break free and continue to feel more comfortable in his own skin. There are no more secrets. In interviews throughout the day, Phelps repeated a line that he has said often since he first returned to competition after his DUI arrest last April: He wants people to know the real Michael Phelps.
"I want to show people who I am," he says. "They've seen me as just a swimmer. And to be quite honest, whatever opinion you have of me, that's fine. I am who I am and I'm not sugarcoating anything."
There is no such thing as perfection. Like everyone else in the world, Phelps is flawed. He's complicated. He exists in the gray area where the rest of us all do as well. Now 30, soon to be married and a father, he has grown up and matured. And there's surely a sense of freedom in no longer living a double life.
"Just living a freer, happier life is a huge change," he said. "I don't feel like I'm carrying weights around anymore. I pick up the phone when somebody calls. I used to dodge phone calls.
"The process I went through was difficult and challenging. People ask me if I could change anything in my life would I, and I wouldn't. Everything happens for a reason and I'm thankful I'm sitting here alive today and able to grow from the experiences I've had."