Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps plans to enter a six-week in-patient treatment program after his recent drunken-driving arrest, he and his agent said Sunday. The move should help his legal case and boost his public image as he seeks to keep a swimming comeback alive, legal and sports experts said.
In statements on social media Sunday morning, Phelps told his fans that he plans to take time off to "attend a program" and focus on his personal life.
"I recognize that this is not my first lapse in judgment, and I am extremely disappointed with myself," said Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history. "I'm going to take some time away to attend a program that will provide the help I need to better understand myself. Swimming is a major part of my life, but right now I need to focus my attention on me as an individual, and do the necessary work to learn from this experience and make better decisions in the future."
In a statement, Drew Johnson, Phelps' agent, said the swimmer would check himself into an in-patient program for six weeks. Johnson would not say whether Phelps would be receiving treatment for alcohol abuse.
Still, former University of Michigan coach Jon Urbanchek, who has known Phelps since the swimmer was a child, said the reason he is seeking help is "probably alcohol."
"It's a huge step for Michael," Urbanchek said. "He recognizes that he needed some help. It's just a detour on the way, and he's going get back on track. This is when he needs support."
After spending the evening at the Horseshoe Casino in Baltimore, Phelps was stopped last Tuesday for speeding outside the Fort McHenry Tunnel, police said. He was charged with DUI, excessive speed, and crossing double lane lines. Police say his blood alcohol level was 0.14 and that he failed field sobriety tests. The state's legal limit is .08. Police said he was clocked going 84 mph in a 45-mph zone.
Phelps is scheduled to appear in Baltimore District Court for trial on Nov. 19.
The arrest last week was Phelps' second for drunken driving. He pleaded guilty to driving while impaired after being arrested in 2004 in Wicomico County. In 2009, British tabloids published a photo of him smoking a marijuana pipe.
Towson defense attorney Marshall Henslee, who handles drunken-driving cases in Baltimore and surrounding counties, said it would be "incredibly unusual" if Phelps did not plan to seek treatment before his court date — especially because this is Phelps' second arrest.
Henslee said he advises all clients charged with DUI to contact a substance-abuse specialist who can evaluate what kind of treatment the client might need.
"As an attorney, you want to be able to say your client did the responsible thing," Henslee said. "If they hadn't done any treatment … by the time the court date rolls along, it looks really irresponsible and like you don't care if you have a problem."
Six weeks is longer than the typical person undergoes treatment, Henslee noted. With celebrity defendants, there is always a chance that "a judge might say, 'I'm going to make an example of you.'"
Phelps, who was 19 at the time, received probation before judgment in the 2004 charge of driving while impaired.
Phelps has lucrative deals with sponsors including Under Armour and Subway. Entering rehab could send the public and sponsors the message that Phelps is taking the arrest seriously — and it might indicate that his personal issues are "more serious than we thought," said sports marketing expert Bob Dorfman of Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco.
"It's probably a wise move, and it does make it look like he's addressing a problem and doing what he can to take care of it as smartly and efficiently as possible," he said.
If Phelps competes in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, the heavy advertising wouldn't come until about six weeks before the games begin, Dorfman said.
"The thing sponsors have going for them is there's not a lot of activity for him in between Olympics," he said. "They still have wait-and-see time at this point."
Rowdy Gaines, an NBC commentator and Olympic gold medalist, said that even if Phelps needs to take several months off, the break doesn't have to derail his comeback.
Fall is generally "very much an off-season" for professional swimmers, Gaines said: "Most of these pros right now aren't swimming much anyhow."
"Every day you're out of the water it takes about a half day to develop that feel that you've missed," he added — so if Phelps stops training for six weeks, it would take three weeks to get back.
For now, getting professional help should be more important than training and competing, Gaines said.
"Once you realize you have a problem, you have to take a first step — and that's a really good one," he said of Phelps entering treatment. "I'm proud of him, I really am."