Michael Phelps stumbled through his answer, struggling to put the words together, and finally offered up an apology.

ROME — Michael Phelps stumbled through his answer, struggling to put the words together, and finally offered up an apology.

"I'm kind of out of it right now," he said Friday, sitting in a marble-adorned Italian hall erected by Il Duce himself. "I just woke up from a nap. Sorry about that."

I guess we can cut Phelps some slack.

After all, it's been a mighty busy year. He became the winningest Olympian ever, popped up on one TV show after another, pumped out another book, was the subject of a most embarrassing picture, anguished over whether he even wanted to keep swimming, and finally decided it was time to jump back in the pool.

Now, racing only himself and his place in history, Phelps is at the world championships, a meet that will serve as the jumping-off point for the final lap of his career.

"It's been a long year," Phelps said Friday, sporting that scraggly semblance of a beard he always attempts to grow before a meet. "I've had a lot of really, really high points, and a lot of low points. It's been a learning year both in and out of the pool. It's been a difficult journey."

This is where he's most comfortable, of course, setting goals at the pool and seeing if he can meet them all by the time he calls it a career after the 2012 London Olympics.

Phelps won't be tackling the same grueling program that produced six gold medals in Athens in 2004, seven wins at the 2007 world championships in Australia, and a record eight golds medals last summer at Beijing, breaking Mark Spitz's 36-year-old Olympic mark.

Heck, this a relative vacation — six events, three of them relays.

"It is a little different," Phelps said. "I don't think it's going to be as stressful, and hopefully not as tiring. We'll see. I'm looking forward to it. This is my first big meet to have a smaller program. I can focus a little bit more on specific events rather than worry about swimming 20 times a week."

He's still planning to take on some new events, but none will be on display in the Eternal City. He didn't enter the 100 backstroke at the U.S. trials, where it would have been difficult to qualify for the team, and pulled out of the 100 free because of a stiff neck.

Phelps is limiting himself to the 200 free along with the 100 and 200 butterfly — three events in which he's the Olympic champion and world record holder. He'll probably swim all three relays as well.

The decision to withdraw from the 100 free drew a provocative response from two-time defending world champion Filippo Mangini of Italy, who said the neck injury was simply an excuse because Phelps knew he couldn't win against a talented field.

The American leaped at the chance to address Mangini's comment when it came up at a news conference held two days before the start of the swimming competition at the Foro Italico.

"The neck has never been an excuse as was stated in the paper by one of the athletes," Phelps said. "I've never been afraid to swim any events. I actually wanted to swim that race. But that race was not swum because I didn't want to put pressure on something and possibly jeopardize something in the future. It was a precautionary measure we took. We had seen the doctor, and we decided that's what was best for me."

Phelps' coach Bob Bowman also chimed in.

"I think we will see Michael in the 100 free before too long," he said.

Bowman's plan for this year never included the 100 free, even though Phelps had been swimming it regularly — he's the American record holder — since completing a three-month suspension imposed by USA Swimming over that infamous picture of the swimmer inhaling from a marijuana pipe.

In Rome, the preliminaries and semifinals of the 100 free fall on the same day as the final of 200 fly.

"I didn't want to mess with his fly," Bowman said. "He's swimming that too good right now."

As it is, Phelps still figures to swim more races than anyone — 12 over eight days if everything goes according to plan. But get this, he'll actually have an entire day off — gasp! — five days into the program, which should greatly help with his recovery.

Phelps already has gotten back to top form quicker than anyone expected, even his coach.

Earlier this month, Phelps broke the world record in the 100 fly at the U.S. trials. Bowman thought it would take more training to reach that point, considering his swimmer took six months off after Beijing, then was barred from competing until early May by the suspension.

"Right now, for the time spent in the pool, I've been able to get back to a pretty good place and a good starting point for the next three years," Phelps said. "I've seen some things that were better than they were over the last four years, but there's still a lot of improvement needed to be where I want to be."