Instead of rising at dawn to swim thousands of laps until his muscles burned in preparation for the London Olympics in 2012, he could spent his afternoons virtually anonymous, crushing mammoth drives, dropping long putts and joking with friends.
There are brief moments, however, when his diverging interests can intersect, as they did Monday at Hayfields Country Club, where Phelps hosted the inaugural Michael Phelps Foundation Golf Classic.
The tournament, the first major fundraiser his foundation has hosted, is something the Olympic swimmer plans to have annually. It was sponsored by a number of the companies in Phelps' endorsement portfolio, including Speedo, Under Armour, Hilton, Subway as well as the Boys and Girls Club of America, the Baltimore Ravens, USA Swimming and the USOC.
Money raised at the tournament will go toward two programs — IM, which focuses on water safety and education for children, and Level Field Fund, a scholarship fund that supports promising swimmers in need of financial help.
"To have my first golf tournament for my foundation is just incredible," Phelps said. "A lot of work has gone into it. I can't thank everyone enough. For me, it all goes back to my goal of being able to promote the sort of swimming and taking it to a new level. I think this is a great way to start it."
Phelps didn't get the itch to play golf until after he won eight gold medals in Beijing. In the media hysteria that followed, one of the members of his management team at Octogon suggested he take some swings a driving range in China to decompress, and he was hooked. Though he's never taken a lesson, he has a long, fluid swing that takes advantage of his abnormal flexibility and results in tremendous power, if not accuracy. He's been a regular on the links since, even skipping occasional practices to play a round, much to the chagrin of his coach, Bob Bowman.
But Bowman soon came to realize Phelps needed an occasional mental break from training.
"I think he can do both. There are plenty of hours in the day," Bowman said. "As long as he keeps it in balance, we're in good shape. I think it's good for him."
Has the game taught Phelps patience?
"It hasn't yet," Bowman said. "But we're hoping. I've seen him a couple of times, and he's not all that patient."
"After I retire, I'll be spending more time with golf and we'll see how good I can get," said Phelps, whose low round is 91.
It was a somewhat atypical summer for Phelps this year. He admitted he wasn't in top shape at U.S. Nationals and at the Pan Pacific Championships in Irvine, Calif., and his performance — even though he won five gold medals — was deemed a disappointment for someone of his stature. Phelps' Olympic teammate and friend, Ryan Lochte, can arguably say he's the best swimmer in the world right now.
"Obviously, Ryan Lochte is the best swimmer in the world this year. No question," Bowman said. "That will be a huge challenge for Michael going forward. Hopefully it will be a motivator."
Failure has always been a tremendous motivator for Phelps.
"I think one of the biggest things that motivates me now is having that summer that I had," Phelps said. "Not being able to compete at the level that I want and having other people competing better than me is frustrating. But I really think that's going to play a big role over the next two years to keep me being in the best shape."
Though he is still trying to figure out ways to motivate Phelps, Bowman was quick to point out that no one is going to care what Phelps does at any swim meet other than the London Olympics, and they will train with that in mind.
"The only meet that matters to Michael is London," Bowman said.