"It's kind of crazy," the Baltimore swimmer mused, saying that every meet such as this week's Indianapolis Grand Prix brings back memories of a storied athletic career that he is now trying to bottle as he approaches its end.
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Phelps arrived here amid much buzz after the "psych sheet" of each race's registered swimmers revealed that he will swim in the 400-meter individual medley, a punishing event that he had perviously sworn off. But on Wednesday, he indicated that swimming in the event will give him a sense of what condition he's in with four months to go before the London Olympics.
"The biggest thing is if I want to achieve the goals I've set, I've got to be in tip-top shape," Phelps said. "Part of that is swimming longer races. The 400 IM is the toughest race and the most painful one."
Only he and his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, know what those goals are and which events he plans to swim in London.
Phelps will go head-to-head against his main rival, Ryan Lochte both here and, no doubt, in London. Lochte said he wasn't surprised that Phelps decided to race in the 400 IM on Friday despite years of sayng he was done with the event.
"He told me after 2008 he was never going to swim the 400 IM again," Lochte said. "You know what? It's racing. He loves to race. It's fun for him, and me."
Phelps and his North Baltimore Aquatics Club teammates practiced a bit at the Indiana University Natatorium where the Grand Prix begins Thursday, but they seemed most relaxed and happy at another pool — that of the Wheeler-Dowe Boy & Girls Club, where Phelps announced the expansion of his charitable foundation's water safety and wellness program for kids.
Phelps spoke, often quite movingly, about obstacles he faced growing up and the challenges of staying motivated about swimming after the pinnacle of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where he won his record eight gold medals. And he spoke about those who helped him over those hurdles.
"Someone who helped me find the passion back was Ray Lewis," Phelps told the children, referring to the Baltimore Ravens linebacker. "He's been able to help me kind of just find me. I was the only one who could find me."
Phelps also talked about the joy of training with Allison Schmitt, or Smitty as he calls her, a rising star in the sport. The two trained together at Club Wolverine in Michigan, where she is from, and she followed Phelps and Bowman to NBAC, based at the Meadowbrook pool in northwest Baltimore.
"One of the coolest things is having Allison Smitty there," Phelps said. "Her attitude in the pool is amazing. I saw one time in the pool when she was not smiling. We help each other every day."
Asked by one of the children about the biggest challenge he faced growing up, Phelps paused, lost in thought, before telling them about his parents separating when he was a young boy. He said he was raised by his mother, Debbie, a Baltimore County public school principal, and his sisters Whitney and Hilary.
He pointed out Hilary, calling her an "inspiration," who had accompanied him to the event. Debbie Phelps will also attend his races this week, as she has so often, her tearful reactions to her son's triumphs having become a familiar sight over the years.
Michael Phelps seemed emotional himself Wednesday as he looked both backward and forward on his swimming career.
"This is the last year of my career, these are the last four months of my career," Phelps told the kids, striking a pensive note.
While he spoke about how, now that he's older, it's much harder to recover from his intense training regimen, he also said he's never felt more relaxed or happy. He seemed particularly so amid children who had made posters welcoming him and squirmed with barely contained delight at meeting him, and he lingered, talking and posing for pictures with them.
He even took one of his own, asking Hilary for his cellphone to take a photo of a large poster painted of him, powering to the finish line in his signature butterfly stroke, with the slogan, "Dream, Plan, Reach" written across the churning water.
Phelps chose the club to announce the expansion of his charitable foundation's water safety, swimming and wellness program. Called "im" for both the swimming event so closely associated with Phelps and "I am," the program will now be offered in 28 Boys & Girls Clubs, including one at aU.S. Navyinstallation in Naples, Italy.
On the day before he would head back to competition — Phelps will compete in the 100 freestyle and 100 butterfly Thursday — he said it was "better than anything else" to be with the children, encouranging them to dream, and swim.
"I feel like the old me again," Phelps said, grinning broadly. "I'm able to feel like a kid again."