Biondi, who took his own aim at Spitz's mark and came up short, has a story about his Olympic experience that illustrates his point. The night of his first final in Seoul, he planned to catch the last bus to the swimming venue. He didn't anticipate the bus would be overcrowded, and right as he was about to get on, the doors closed. The bus left. He had to walk to his first final.

"Michael is going to have something like that in his own way," Biondi said. "I'm sure that USA Swimming will offer him a little more protection, but he's not only going to need a bodyguard, he's going to need two bodyguards."

'Fire in my stomach'
Australia's Ian Thorpe also expressed doubts that Phelps could pull it off, but in doing so, he might have done Phelps a favor. Bowman printed Thorpe's comments and showed them to Phelps, who taped them to the back of his locker in Ann Arbor, Mich.

"It's things like that that absolutely just make me go literally insane," Phelps said. "They fire me up so much. That's like the final touch that gets me and puts a fire in my stomach. If people want to talk, I encourage it because I love it. It motivates me more than anything."

What makes Phelps' task all the more unique is that, other than the relays, there's not likely to be swimmers from other countries standing in his way, especially after Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands decided to drop out of the 200-meter freestyle days before the Games. His top opponents will likely to be his American teammates, including Lochte, one of his best friends.

Lochte could easily sink the entire story line tomorrow by winning the 400-meter individual medley. The Daytona, Fla., native is one of the few swimmers who doesn't look at Phelps like he's superhuman.

"Honestly, I really don't feel like swimmers feel like [they can beat him]," Lochte said. "I bet there are some, but he's so dominant in everything he swims, most swimmers are just trying to get second. That's definitely not the case with me. I always feel like I can beat him."

Regardless of what happens over the next 10 days, it's going to be hard, at least in Bowman's eyes, for people to put it all into perspective. The hype that surrounds Phelps' attempt to win eight gold medals has made that virtually impossible.

"I think the hardest challenge is just understanding that no matter what happens in these meets, Michael is going to be judged by people who don't truly understand what he's doing," Bowman said. "If he wins seven, it will be, 'Why didn't he win eight?' If he doesn't win them all in world record time, it will be 'What's wrong? Why didn't he break a world record?' There is always something. If one of the relays doesn't win, it will be 'What happened?' "

Phelps is a different swimmer than he was in Athens in 2004, when he won six gold medals and two bronze. Thanks to weight training the past two years - something he'd never done - he's stronger physically and has more speed in the shorter events. He's also more mature, and has a better understanding of what it's going to take to eclipse Spitz's record.

"When people ask me about Spitz and say do you want to do what he did, my answer is: I want to become the first Michael Phelps, not the second Mark Spitz," Phelps said. "I want to do something that no one else has ever done before.

"That's what I want people to look at me as - being one of a kind. Here is something that no one before my time has done, and have someone say that about me. I think that's cool. Being compared to the greatest Olympian of all time? It's not that bad."

kevin.vanvalkenburg @baltsun.com