In Michael Phelps' telling, one of the greatest Olympic careers almost began with a skinny dip. It was the first trip out of the country for the kid from Rodgers Forge, and he gawked like a tourist — not at monuments or museums — but at the famous swimmers competing in Sydney.
"I was kind of just like, 'Wow, that's this person, that's that person, there he is, there she is. This is really cool,' " he said in a recent interview, channeling his wide-eyed 15-year-old self at the 2000 Games. "So I was not really focused on what I needed to do, what I was there to do."
He was so distracted, he forgot to tie his suit before the semifinals. While he escaped without a wardrobe malfuction — "Everything stayed together, so it was good" — he also failed to medal.
But Phelps didn't return to Baltimore empty-handed. Twelve years later, the innocent abroad at his first Olympics is now the veritable living legend heading to a fourth and final Games, having figured this out: To go big, you have to go small.
"I think that was just something I learned — having to prepare myself, make sure I did all the right things and pay attention to all the small things because in the end that's what made the big difference."
On Saturday, a day after the Opening Ceremonies for the London Games, the now 27-year-old Phelps will slouch into the Aquatic Centre for the first of his seven events. The crowd likely will go insane, fully aware that they are bearing witness to the final flourish atop something already quite extraordinary.
Phelps, though, will be somewhere inside his own head, in a place walled off by his headphones, the unreadable mask that is his game face and his singular focus. After a bit of housekeeping, toweling off his starting block and making sure the angled push-off segment isn't loose, he'll climb aboard. In the stillness that falls as swimmers and spectators alike anticipate the starting buzzer, Phelps will loosen up by swinging his arms, crossing them first in front then in back. They are so long and hyper-extended that he slaps his own back, a self-flagellation that cracks like a whip in the soon-to-be broken silence.
And then he'll take off, slicing through the air — and then the water.
The adage that you can never swim in the same river twice is certainly true for Phelps. He is an older swimmer now, but also a smarter one. There are competitors who have started to catch and even surpass him, particularly his main rival, Ryan Lochte, determined that London will host swimming's own version of the changing of the guard.
But if Phelps is swimming in vastly different waters these days, it's because he changed their course: No swimmer has ever brought more attention, or big-money sponsorships, to the sport, nor set the bar as high on what is possible.
As the number of opportunities to see him race dwindle, each rises in significance for those who collect them like baseball cards in the shoeboxes of their memories.
There are aficionados, for example, of his 200-meter freestyle in Beijing — his coach, Bob Bowman, first among them — who consider it his most technically perfect race. The most recent entry to the pantheon has to be the 200-meter individual medley in the Omaha trials, in which he and Lochte, in some sort of Vulcan body meld, matched stroke for stroke and seemingly breath for breath until Phelps somehow out-fingernailed him to the wall.
"Time slows down for him," Lenny Krayzelberg is convinced.
Krayzelberg, a four-time gold medalist in the 2000 and 2004 Games, will be in London for his former teammate's farewell to the sport. Phelps rises to the occasion better than any other athlete he's seen, Krayzelberg says, seizing the moment and controlling rather than submitting to the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the Games.
"I don't think I've ever seen someone perform better on the biggest stage of the world than Michael," he said. "Maybe he has an extra gear."
Improving with age
Indeed, the wonder of Phelps these days is no longer that of the raw talent, the child prodigy who seemed to break world records as a matter of course. It is that now, even as an older swimmer, and one who has many more distractions and fewer things left to prove, that he still finds a way to win.
Phelps arrived at the trials in Omaha late last month feeling what he called less "peppy" after six weeks of altitude training in Colorado, and he had gone there directly from a Grand Prix race in Charlotte and an Olympics media event in Dallas. In press conference after press conference, he talked about getting off to a slow start in one race, not hitting his turns as powerfully in another, popping up to check out the scoreboard instead of pouncing to a fast finish in yet another.
"It was a pretty crappy first 50" meters, went a typical self-assessment after one race, "and a pretty terrible finish."
And yet, he won that race, the 100-meter butterfly in which he was sixth in the first lap but, somehow, passed those five swimmers to finish first. In fact, he won every race but one, the 400-meter individual medley, and even then, his second-place finish was all he needed to qualify to swim it in London.