BEIJING—Michael Phelps wants to clear something up.
You might have heard about his quest to win eight gold medals at these Beijing Olympics. You might have heard how he wants to break Mark Spitz's record for the most medals in a single Games, that he won't be satisfied with anything else.
"I haven't said anything about breaking any record, or going after any record," Phelps said. "You guys [in the media] are the ones saying that. I have my goals, and they haven't been published. [My coach] and I are the only two people that know about them, and we're going to try and work to achieve them."
The distinction between what he's said and what others have said for him is important to Phelps. If he's going to win eight gold medals, he can't look at the big picture. He can't think about what Spitz accomplished in Munich in 1972. He has to focus on each race - preliminaries, semifinals, finals - or the burden of what he's attempting will be too much.
That ability to focus - which his coach, Bob Bowman, believes compares favorably with Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Roger Federer and other great athletes who earned a reputation for high performance under pressure - goes a long way toward explaining why Phelps is the best swimmer in the world.
And it's the best explanation for why eight gold medals, which would likely go down as one of the greatest achievements in the history of sport, just might be possible over the next 10 days. It starts tonight with the 400 individual medley.
It won't be easy. His biggest challenges will come from teammates - Ryan Lochte in the 400 IM and world-record holder Ian Crocker in the 100 butterfly - and France's 4 x 100 free relay team.
"I think particularly at the Olympic level, at the top level, the pressure comes as much from expectation of what people think you can do as it does from your competitors," Bowman said. "Michael is able to basically ignore all of those things, which is super hard to do."
Phelps is also one of the most competitive people on the planet. He wants to win every race because that mentality is burned into his DNA. If he finishes second in one of them, he'll be disappointed.
The routineTo understand how Phelps will be able to handle it all, watch his pre-race routine. It has not changed since he was 13, but if you listen to Bowman, it's the key to everything.
After warming up, Phelps walks to the pool with his head down, listening to music. He stretches his right leg on the starting block, shakes it a few times until his muscles feel loose, then he does the same with his left. He offers an expressionless wave when his name is announced, then removes his warm-up jacket. He makes no eye contact. On the starting blocks, he scissor-crosses his arms two-and-a-half times, right before the horn goes off, and then he dives into the pool.
"I think that's just a very familiar pattern that he does, and it gets his mind in a place where it needs to be," Bowman said. "I remember clearly the first time he swam at nationals, he swam very, very well in the prelims and came back that night and I was very curious to see how he would do the first time in the finals. And he just walked out and did his normal routine.
"That's very rare that you would have some kid who is 14 up on the blocks stretching and doing all this stuff while the other guys are sitting back in their chairs. Most kids would [succumb to peer pressure] and do what the other guys were doing. But he just totally did his own thing."
Even among those who can appreciate Phelps' ability to deliver under pressure, opinion is divided over whether such a feat can be accomplished. Not only does Phelps need to win five individual events, he also needs victories in three relay races.
Spitz said last month at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Omaha that he believes Phelps has a great chance. The two swimmers are not close - they've shared only a few words over the years - but Spitz seems more comfortable these days discussing Phelps than he did four years ago.
"I think it's about time that someone else take the responsibility and I'm happy to pass the baton on to someone that I'm sure I have inspired," Spitz said. "Thirty six years is a long time. To be honest, if he doesn't do it, then it was not meant to be, but it does not take away from his greatness. He's shown a different kind of courage than I did. I was not chasing seven gold medals."
There has been no shortage of respectful, but adamant doubters. Swimmer Matt Biondi - who won five gold medals in Seoul, South Korea, in 1992, and is now a math teacher in Hawaii - said there are simply too many variables involved to win eight gold medals. The odds that something could go wrong, including something outside his control, are considerable.
"I hope he does it, but the odds are against him," Biondi said. "That's not a knock on him. But there are always going to be upsets. My guess is there is going to be an upset in Beijing."