He has always been something of a closer — thrilling, last-fraction-of-a-second victories being something of a trademark — but now, what the world is watching for is how Phelps will finish his competitive career. The fact he is opting for a fourth Games, when he could have ridden off into the sunset at the very peak of his record-breaking eight gold medal sweep in Beijing, both impresses and baffles. What could possibly be left for him?
"I just want to be able to look at it five years, 10years down the road, if I can look back and say I did everything that I wanted to do then that's all that matters," Phelps said during an interview in Omaha after the trials. "I have goals and things that I want to accomplish, that's the only thing I'm after right now."
What those goals are, Phelps refuses to specify. The Phelps of today is something of a cypher — or, at least, a political consultant's dream: He invariably stays on message, returning repeatedly to the same set of mostly bland generalities. It is no doubt a soul-preserving measure when you're asked some variant of the same question over and over again, but it also reflects a certain discpline and wariness that Phelps has developed over the years when it comes to his public face.
After years in the spotlight, whether during his Olympic highs or his personal lows — most notoriously, the tabloid photo of him hitting a marijuana bong — Phelps now tends to deflect personal questions and guards what privacy he can.
But his friends say he is a happier person these days, compared to when he was more single-mindedly driven.
"I feel like in the past four years he has mellowed a lot more," said Allison Schmitt, 22, who has trained with Phelps since she was a high school student in Michigan, where the Baltimore swimmer had moved with Bowman in the years before the Beijing Games.
"He's a lot more laid back now," said Schmitt, a rising star in the sport poised for a breakout Games. "He already has experienced every possible situation, so I think he knows how to react to whatever happens."
Phelps would point to Schmitt as the reason for his more relaxed self, saying she lightens up the atmosphere with her jokes and singing, N'Sync making a recent appearance. In their off-hours during training, they and other swimmers will play board games — Phelps is apparently quite good at Scattergories — watch movies and talk shop.
"He's just pretty normal outside the pool," agrees Chris Brady, his roommate this past year in Baltimore. "If you came to the house, we would be watching sports or playing video games like any other guys" in their 20s.
Brady, 24, a Delaware native whom Bowman recruited to the University of Michigan when he was coaching there, moved to Baltimore after graduation to continue training at North Baltimore Aquatic Club. To help him save money and since they both were on the road so much, Phelps invited Brady to move into a spare bedroom and join a household that included Herman, the bulldog the Baltimore swimmer got after Athens — his mom Debbie having promised him a dog if he won gold — and the more recently adopted Stella, a Catahoula mix that he fell in love with while filming a Today show segment.
For Brady, swimming with Phelps was like a golfer getting to play with Tiger Woods: You can't help but get better, he said. But it was something of a two-way street as well — as Phelps' primary training partner for speed work, Brady pushed and "made him work for it."
Brady watched from afar, but with particular insight, the brouhaha over swimmer Tyler Clary's recent takedown of Phelps. Like most, Brady, who trained with both swimmers at Michigan, was baffled that Clary could tell a columnist at his hometown paper, The Press-Enterprise of Riverside, Calif., that Phelps didn't work very hard and could have accomplished so much more.
Still Brady, who retired from swimming after the Omaha trials, said he could see what was behind the remarks.
"I think it was probably frustration," Brady said. "I don't think it's wrong for Tyler to think he works harder than Michael. Then you mix in not being able to beat him, and the frustration boils over."
The incident, for which Clary has apologized, provided a window into what it's been like to swim at an elite level during an era dominated by Phelps. He has long said that one of his goals is to elevate the sport beyond the once-every-four-years spotlight that it has enjoyed in the past, and he has succeeded in large part.
Swimmers marvel at how much attention they now draw — the TV coverage of not just the Olympic races, but the Grand Prix series and the qualifying trials in Omaha as well. The trials even got the nightly Bob Costas treatment this year. Crowds have swelled, in numbers and enthusiasm — at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where the newly selected Olympic swim team held a training camp before heading across the Atlantic, an announcement that practice would be open one morning drew hundreds to line before dawn, in the rain, to make sure they got a seat.
His biggest rival
This year, swim fans have a particularly engaging reality show to follow, their very own Amazing Races, featuring the rivalry of Phelps and Lochte.
Lochte offers the new face that magazine art directors were hungry for after two Olympic cycles of all Phelps all the time. If you could never tell Men's Journal fromMen's Healthapart on the newsstand, this month didn't help with both featuring the Florida swimmer with the surfer-dude affect.
They are mostly friendly rivals, often teaming up after hours during meets for hotel room games of spades, usually against sprinters Cullen Jones and Ricky Berens. In cards as in the pool, their equally competitive but differing styles come out, Berens said.