ANN ARBOR, Mich.—In one corner of the Donald B. Canham Natatorium, a massive brick building on the University of Michigan campus that houses a 50-meter pool, there is a tiny clock with glowing red numbers.
It's a countdown, a reminder of how many days, hours, even tenths of a second remain until the start of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Today, for one brief moment, the clock will read: 100 days.
Or he might not see the clock. It has been ticking now for more than three years, and though he glances at it once a week, no one numerical moment is more important than the next.
To Phelps, they are all important. Each day brings him closer to the 10-day stretch when the world will be watching as he tries to do what no Olympian has ever done - win eight gold medals in a single Games.
And though there have been setbacks and distractions this past year - a broken wrist, a handful of commercial shoots and promotional appearances, some uneven training - there will be no excuses in Beijing. He vows to be ready.
"It seems like just yesterday I was in Athens," Phelps says.
It was not just yesterday, though. So much has changed since Phelps was a wiry teenager who lived in Rodgers Forge with his mom, trained with the North Baltimore Aquatic Club each morning, then showed up at Pete's Grill on Guilford Avenue to wolf down a huge breakfast.
Phelps is a 22-year-old man now, thicker physically, wiser emotionally and more confident socially than he was the last time the world put a magnifying glass on him. He wasn't quite ready for what happened four years ago, when he stated that it was his goal to win eight gold medals in Athens, breaking Mark Spitz's record from the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.
"I think all the attention" came as a surprise, Phelps says of Athens. "I didn't expect all of it. Being thrown in front of hundreds of different media, doing all those commercials, I was just like ... wow. What do I do? I had no idea how to act. But now it is just part of the territory. It comes with everything."
And will it be easier this time?
"I think so, yeah," he says. He's eating a turkey sandwich after practice at his favorite downtown deli, Maize N Blue, and pausing every few minutes to check his BlackBerry. "Everything is easier when you experience something firsthand. It's how you learn things. If I messed something up in the past, I know I learned from it. ... I don't see my mistakes as mistakes. They're something I needed to do to learn from them."
Phelps is less guarded with his image than he once was. He'll roll his eyes at the occasional dumb question, curse when the situation calls for it, comment on attractiveness of a passing female and not bother to hide his poker addiction, just like so many 22-year-olds.
But it is far more difficult these days to get a slice of his time. His time and his privacy are closely guarded by Octagon, the management group that handles all his non-swimming affairs. In a few weeks, an official "media blackout" will begin, and aside from a few interviews poolside after competitions, Phelps will be silent. It's a plan put together by Octagon and Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, to get him prepared for Beijing.
So many people want a piece of him. At swim meets, kids half his age will line up for half an hour, hoping to get his autograph. Almost always, Phelps will wander over to sign T-shirts and swim caps and pose for pictures for as long as he can. Rarely does 10 seconds pass without someone calling out his name.
"From my perspective, I think my life is pretty simple," Phelps says. "I think if someone else looked at my life, they'd think it was complicated. But I've gone through all this stuff before. I've done this so many times. Since Athens, I'm used to everything."
Realizing the stakesIn Ann Arbor, there is, for the most part, peace. Ever since Phelps cracked a tiny bone in his wrist in October - an injury he says occurred when he slipped on ice and fell while climbing into a friend's car late at night - he says he realized just how much is at stake this year. Phelps was so distraught after the injury, he was scared to call Bowman and asked Michigan's medical trainer to do it instead. Eventually, the trainer put Phelps on the phone.
"He was as upset as I can ever remember him being," Bowman says. "He was devastated. He kept saying, 'It's over. I'm finished.' I told him, 'Michael, I can't be sure, but I don't think anyone has ever died from a broken wrist.' Let's just see what happens."