Phelps swims first strokes on route to London 2012

By John Mehaffey

LONDON (Reuters) - Snow flurries glimpsed from the windows of the Manchester Aquatics Center supplied an incongruous backdrop last Thursday for Michael Phelps to discuss his first competitive venture in a British pool.

To add to the vaguely surreal atmosphere Phelps, with a woolen hat pulled firmly down across his ears in a concession to the cold, was invited to discuss the marital indiscretions of fellow-American Tiger Woods.

Phelps, banned for three months after a photo showed him apparently smoking marijuana at a party last year, did not duck the question.

After wishing Woods all the best, he said: "I would be the first to admit I've made a lot of mistakes both in and out of the pool. The mistakes that I have made, I have never made that same mistake again and I've helped other people not make the same mistakes."

Such honesty from the 14 times Olympic champion shone through a weekend in which the U.S. swimming team thumped a European team selected from Britain, Italy and Germany.

On land it is not immediately apparent why Phelps is the athlete described by awestruck Briton James Goddard as "the greatest athlete, the greatest sports person of all time."

As Goddard had already admitted, there were no crises of conscience among the Europeans at wearing a performance-boosting suit which is still legal if it meant beating the great Michael Phelps.

ROCK EXALTS

On Friday, Phelps helped the 4x100 meters medley relay team to a world short-course record before winning the 100 butterfly by five-hundredths of a second. He finished third in the 100 freestyle.

Saturday was less successful for Phelps, if not for the Americans who romped to an overwhelming victory.

Phelps was again part of a record-breaking relay team but was beaten into second place in the 200 butterfly by Manchester law student Michael Rock.

Rock could not contain his excitement. "It's the greatest thing I've ever achieved, beating the Olympic champion, beating the greatest swimmer of our generation," he enthused.

Phelps was asked if he had been beaten by a suit or a man.

"I was beaten because he was much better than I was in this race," he replied. "The race is over, he swam a better race than I did, he was more prepared."

"I'd rather lose a race right now than when it really counts," he said. "I think the biggest day I'm looking forward to is the world championships (2011) and the Olympics after that.

"If I can be prepared for those races then I am perfectly fine. These are all little baby steps to the big picture."

Before the meeting Phelps said he would not be swimming eight events in London but, tantalizingly, did not state what he had planned.

"The goals I have for London are very high, very challenging," he said. "They're something that excite me.

"If I can achieve those and then hang up my suit and goggles, I can know I've done everything I could and wanted to do in the sport."

A gold medal in each individual event? The next two years, and certainly the 2011 world championships, will provide the clues.

(Editing by Alison Wildey)