Whatever the decision, though, Bowman felt that the choice had to be Phelps'. So instead of steering him in one direction, he offered just one piece of advice.
"I told him that the only reason he should swim is because he loves to swim," Bowman said. "He shouldn't swim for the money. He shouldn't swim to please me or his mother or [agent Peter Carlisle]. He shouldn't swim because he doesn't have anything else to do. If he didn't have a passion for it, he should quit. Because he has nothing to gain. He's already the best ever."
Phelps had difficulty making up his mind, but around the end of February, he gave himself a deadline. He told Bowman he would let him know in the next few days. And that's why Bowman knew he had to take the swimmer's phone call while he was standing in the lobby of the Kennedy Center on March 1, minutes before he was about to watch a classical music performance by Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin.
"I didn't know what he was going to say," said Bowman, who has coached Phelps since the swimmer was 12 years old. "It was 50-50. I did not have any strong feeling one way or another."
Phelps was definitive with his answer: I'm in. I want to go four more years.
And so the events of this week were set in motion. Though he would prefer the media weren't buzzing quite so loudly about it, Phelps understands that the third and final act of his swimming career begins Friday in Charlotte, N.C., at the UltraSwim. It's just a regular spring meet, and there have been hundreds like it over the course of his life, but Friday will mark the first time the Rodgers Forge native has been in a competitive race since he won eight gold medals in Beijing.
It's also his first real step toward competing in the 2012 Olympic Games in London. And so while he says he has no expectations, there is a flicker of Phelps' competitive fire still burning. He wants to experience the rush of adrenaline that comes with competition.
"I'm not sure what's going to happen," Phelps said Wednesday at the Meadowbrook Aquatic Center. "But I'm really excited just to have the opportunity to race. I haven't had that opportunity until now, and that's the one thing I love about swimming is the racing aspect of it. Whatever happens happens. We'll go back to the drawing board from there."
Phelps said he didn't have any grand epiphany the day he decided his competitive swimming career was going to continue. There was no spark of clarity ignited by introspection. He simply woke up one morning in his Fells Point apartment, earlier than normal, and felt different.
"I don't know what it was, if it was something that happened that night during sleep or what," Phelps said. "I don't even know if it was a change of heart. I remember the sunlight was coming into my room. It was the sun that woke me up. And I just realized that I still have a passion for this. I thought: 'Why am I even contemplating quitting? I want to swim another four years.' "
It was a conclusion most of the world expected, even after Phelps said he was contemplating walking away from competitive swimming after a British tabloid published a photo of him holding a bong to his lips, presumably smoking marijuana. The photo earned him a three-month suspension from USA Swimming, but the incident also had him seriously considering his future for the first time. And he was a lot closer to quitting than anyone probably understands.
Once he decided to return, however, he began to focus on this weekend.
It's just a start, and he knows there is a chance he'll get beat and the headlines will scream he's not the athlete he used to be.
He'll try a new freestyle stroke, one that requires a quicker tempo to help him go faster over shorter distances, but he doesn't know how it will work in competition.
Think of it in terms of Tiger Woods tinkering with his short game or his putting, he says. If it goes well, great. If not, he has time to work on things before the FINA World Championships in July.
"Nobody is going to be 100 percent perfect every time they compete," Phelps said.
Either way, he's just happy to be swimming again.
"I feel like I have unfinished business," he said. "There are still things I want to accomplish before I'm finished in the sport. I'm not going to be done until I do that, and I think I can do it in the next four years."
There was plenty of discussion during his suspension about "youthful mistakes" and "maturity," and none of that has faded with his return to competition. Instead, it will likely intensify.
After Athens, when he won six gold medals, most of the world forgot about him and let him disappear back to Michigan and live in relative anonymity. After Beijing, it has been a different story. These days, he's regular tabloid and blog fodder, ranging from what he's eating to whom he's allegedly sleeping with. And he doesn't expect that will fade anytime soon, or maybe ever.
"I think some of the stuff you read is funny and also a little crazy," Phelps said. "I go out to eat and people take down what I order and put it in the paper. I just laugh."
He does have one new addiction he's picked up that he's happy to talk about: golf. If you play regularly at Pine Ridge or Longview, there is a chance you might see Phelps topping drives or duffing chips with three of his closest friends. Phelps has received some minor media attention for his poker habit - he made the final table in a tournament at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas last year - but lately he has been having just as much fun on the links. As long as he doesn't keep score.
"I consider myself a decent card player, and an awful golfer," Phelps said. "After the first three holes, I'm usually like: 'OK guys, I'm not keeping score. I'm just out here having fun.' But that's the thing. Getting out with a couple high school friends is fun. And I know the more I do it, the better I'll get. I hate going to the course and being dead last every time. Right now, I just like getting out there and being in the middle of nowhere and having fun."