No excuses as Phelps prepares for Beijing
The wrist healed, leaving only a purple scar, and Phelps says now that if he could, he'd remain in a bubble until August, just eating, sleeping and swimming. Bowman and Jon Urbanchek - an assistant swim coach at Michigan and another member of Phelps' intimate circle - recently persuaded Phelps to move out of his townhouse and away from downtown, where the night life was a constant distraction and temptation.

It's still a struggle, though, for him to put his body through hell twice a day inside the Canham Natatorium. He arrives at the pool for a recent afternoon workout clutching a blue Gatorade, his Detroit Tigers cap turned sideways and a mean scowl on his face. Urbanchek, a legendary swim coach who is in his 70s and who often plays the good cop to Bowman's bad cop, senses immediately that Phelps is in a bad mood.

"Turn your hat around!" Urbanchek teases. "Get over here and do this workout!"

"I'm not doing this s-,"Phelps grumbles back. "I'm not doing any of this s-."

But of course he does do the workout, just as he always does. Even when Bowman and Urbanchek require that he swim 20,000 meters in a single practice, which they often do.

"I've had my ups and downs this year," Phelps says. "I've had hiccups like my wrist and I've had times when I wasn't training real well. I'll get in a rhythm where I'll have like two weeks of good training, then I'll have two crappy days. ... I get tired, grouchy, sore and it affects me. When it does, stay clear. Because I'm not a pleasant person to deal with."

Lights, camera ...
The following day, he's back in the natatorium at 8 a.m., shooting a commercial for Rosetta Stone, a language software company that hired him as a spokesman. He has been using the software periodically, hoping to learn a little Chinese before Beijing, but beyond a few words, he hasn't picked up much yet.

The shoot goes on for hours at three different locations and with four wardrobe changes. In the hours of tedium, however, there is one moment worth savoring, one moment that says a lot about who Phelps is.

It happens when Phelps is in the water, after the director asks him to swim half the length of the pool just so the cameraman can get a feel for what the shot will look like.

Phelps puts his head down, launches into his butterfly, and the camera rolls. It's easy to be mesmerized when you see him swim up close, especially when he swims the butterfly, his long arms rising out of the water, then crashing down as he kicks his feet in rhythm, all of it propelling him forward faster than any human being ever dreamed was possible. After a few seconds, and maybe 10 meters, the director feels good about the shot. He's ready to roll tape.

"OK, Mike," he shouts. "Cut! Cut! You can come back!"

Maybe Phelps doesn't hear him. Or maybe he does, and he just doesn't care. He keeps moving forward, arms extended, legs kicking and water churning. It's not even 25 meters - and there will be half a million swims like it between now and Beijing - but for the next few seconds, everyone will wait.

Because Phelps isn't stopping until he puts his hand on the wall.

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com