By Larry Fine
BALTIMORE (Reuters) - Michael Phelps has emerged from one of the darkest periods of his life as a happy man and immersed himself in a career revival, which is bad news for anyone looking to spoil his bid for a glorious Olympic farewell.
The American swimmer, who owns a record 18 Olympic gold medals, retired after winning four golds and two silver medals at the 2012 London Games.
Yet deep down, Phelps knew he did not give his best in 2012 and after hitting a personal low in 2014, rededicated himself, embracing life and working harder than ever in hopes of leaving the sport after the Rio Olympics on a high note at the ripe age of 31.
"I'm happy with who I am, I’m happy where I am. I'm happy with what I’m doing and I feel like a kid again," Phelps told Reuters at the Under Armour complex in Baltimore where he was promoting a TV commercial for the apparel maker.
"I feel more relaxed in my own skin than I've ever been, and I'm happier than I've ever been. It's the best spot I've ever been in my life."
His impending marriage to former Miss California Nicole Johnson and eagerly awaited arrival of their baby boy have enriched the man, who despite all his triumphs had been sorely troubled in the past.
"I look back to 2012 and how I prepared for that and I can tell you it was a joke. It was," said Phelps. "I had no passion and wasn't really too into it. I had no motivation. I think I needed time away from everything - from the sport, from my family, my friends, from every single part of my life."
Phelps hit bottom in late 2014 with his second arrest on a drunken driving charge that resulted in a six-month ban by USA Swimming and 45 days in alcohol rehabilitation.
'REALLY BAD DOWNS'
It was a life-changing experience for Phelps, who has not had an alcoholic drink since.
"It’s probably the most afraid I’ve ever felt in my life,” he told Sports Illustrated following his experience at the in-patient treatment program. "I was in a really dark place, not wanting to be alive anymore."
The most decorated Olympian dealt with other incidents over the years. In February 2009, a photograph of him using a water pipe on a college campus surfaced, bringing him a three-month suspension by USA Swimming.
In November 2004 at age 19, he was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol and sentenced to 18 months' probation.
"If you asked me if I would change anything in my life I would say no," Phelps told Reuters. "There were some good ups and I’ve been through some really bad downs.
"But it’s what has come from those experiences both ways, I think, (that) has really made me who I am today and that’s something that I’m very proud of."
A hard look at himself helped turn things around.
"To be able to sit down and just think about what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go. Who I am, really. And to be able to do that has allowed me to live more free, to be happy with who I am," he said.
Phelps has poured himself into his bubbly life and the quest to cap his legendary swim career in style.
"My sister’s getting married, I’m getting married, we’re having a kid, bought a house, we’re getting ready for Olympic trials, we’re getting ready for the Olympics," said Phelps, rattling off a to-do list.
"We just decided to do it all in one year. Why not?"
Phelps has been building back to competitive form ahead of June's U.S. championships in Omaha.
"I never wanted to look back 20 years down the road and say 'what if I did this differently, what if I did that differently,'" said Phelps, who has a record 22 Olympic medals.
"This is me giving 100 percent. I don’t really know besides 2000 the last time that I gave a hundred, hundred percent. I decided everything I do is going to be (aimed) to retire how I want."
Looking superbly fit, Phelps gave a 20-minute glimpse of his rigorous out-of-pool workout at the sprawling Under Armour gym.
He squatted 315 pounds, exercised his core using a pulley, a rolling wheel and a ball, before finishing on the monkey bars, stopping at each rung to do pull-ups until he began tearing skin off his hands.
Phelps refused to specify his "lofty goals" for Rio, but believes his story is headed for a happy ending.
"My whole life has been a dream come true," said Phelps. "It's time to put some icing on the cake this summer."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)