CHULA VISTA, CALIF. — Michael Phelps reached into his bag of rhetorical tricks and pulled out a few words from a certain ancient Chinese general and military strategist.
"It just makes you really think of who you are around," Phelps said. "That's what I'm saying: You keep your friends close and your enemies closer. It's clearly a lesson learned."
Sun Tzu meet Michael Phelps.
Or the Art of War intersecting with Swimming with the Fishes.
Phelps was talking Saturday with a small group of reporters at the U.S. Olympic Training Center during USA Swimming's two-week training camp here. It was one part media session, one part contrition tour following the January publication of a photo in a British tabloid of Phelps' holding a bong.
If anything, Phelps, winner of a record eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, is at his best following a crisis. He admitted his actions were "stupid," saying he's been able to learn from his mistakes and also revealed that his swimming future was in serious doubt up until four weeks ago.
Phelps was skipping practices and mulling a life without swimming.
Then something registered.
"I just woke up one Sunday and was like, 'What am I doing? Why am I even questioning stopping?' " he said.
Phelps called his mother, his sisters, his agent and longtime coach, Bob Bowman, to tell him he was back in. Bowman took the phone call just as he was headed into the Kennedy Center to hear Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin. Talk about sweet music to his ears.
Bowman said he had been "50-50" on whether Phelps would push through to London and the 2012 Games.
The furor following the photo stunned the Phelps camp. Two sponsors, AT&T and Kellogg Co., did not renew his contracts. And the atmosphere around his practices seemed positively Spears-ian.
"I don't think any of us really realized how famous he really became until that happened," said his teammate and friend Katie Hoff. "You couldn't turn on any sports show, anything, without seeing it. It's like, 'Give the kid a break.' At practice it was so bad, he'd get out of his car and they would just swarm at him. I was like, 'He didn't murder someone.' "