BALTIMORE: Olympic swimming great Michael Phelps looked to the future Friday, including the Rio Olympics in 2016, after he dodged a stint in prison for drunk driving.
The most decorated Olympian of all time struck a remorseful tone when he appeared in a Baltimore courtroom where he acknowledged the DUI charge against him.
As his defense lawyer pleaded for leniency, it emerged that the 29-year-old is attending Alcoholics Anonymous sessions after completing 45 days of intensive rehab at the Meadows addiction treatment center in Arizona.
“During my 45-day program, I was able to find out a lot about myself that I never knew,” Phelps, in a dark suit and heavy-rimmed glasses, told Judge Nathan Braverman.
He added: “I’m looking at a much brighter future than I have had in the past.”
Phelps — still under a six-month suspension from competitive swimming — could have landed in prison for driving too fast after a few too many at Baltimore’s chic Horseshoe casino in the early hours of September 30.
But Braverman opted to heed a state prosecutor’s recommended penalty — a one-year suspended sentence, plus 18 months of supervised probation, during which Phelps must abstain totally from alcohol.
Phelps will be free to go outside the United States to train and compete, the judge said, but wherever he is he must stick firmly to his alcohol addiction treatment.
“It sounds like you know what you need to do,” Braverman told Phelps, adding that he hoped the case would in time become “a footnote to a legendary career.”
Phelps was arrested for driving under the influence once before, when he was 19, in rural Maryland. His traffic record also included a 2006 speeding rap.
Friday’s outcome clears the way for Phelps — whose 22 Olympic medals include 18 golds — to resume his return to top-notch competitive swimming.
Due to the six-month suspension imposed by USA Swimming in the days after his arrest, Phelps will not be taking part in the 2015 world swimming championships in Russia, his attorney Steven Allen told the court.
However, Phelps “is in the process of training for the upcoming Olympics” in Rio de Janeiro, said the lawyer, who gave no further details.
Police pulled over Phelps in a white Range Rover SUV after he was clocked doing 84 miles (135 kilometers) per hour in a 45 mph zone in Baltimore’s undersea Fort McHenry Tunnel.
After the arresting officer whiffed alcohol in the vehicle, Phelps underwent a breathalyzer test that found a blood alcohol level of 0.14 percent — well above the Maryland legal limit of 0.08 percent.
Within hours, as news of his arrest got out, Phelps went on Twitter to acknowledge his error and express regrets to his fans — but gave no hint of any alcohol issues.
His appearance in Maryland District Court — minus the beard he sported in a cheerful Thanksgiving family photo on Instagram — was a celebrity moment in a morning when Braverman was otherwise shoveling through dozens of routine traffic cases.
Phelps said nothing as he arrived with his mother Debbie, his two sisters and former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, a local hero and close friend of the six-foot-four (1.93-meter-tall) swimmer.
Allen took pains to stress Phelps’ involvement with youth groups, saying his client understood he was a role model and that he wanted his misfortune to stand as a lesson to others to beware the dangers of drink.
Leaving the courthouse, after paying $57.50 in court fees, Phelps told reporters that the past three months had been among the hardest in his life.
“I am happy to be moving forward,” he said, as a chauffeured black SUV waited for him and a member of his entourage waved off a couple of autograph-seekers.
“I’ll continue to grow from this and continue on my path of recovery,” he added.
“These couple of years are going to be very challenging. I’m very pleased and happy that I have the great support that I have around me.”