A week from Saturday, the very thick chapter that isMichael Phelps' part of the record books will finally be closed. After a glittering career in which it was easier to write his records in pencil since he likely would surpass them at some point, it's time to get out the indelible ink for the Baltimore swimmer's final Olympics.
Phelps, already the most decorated Olympic swimmer, is poised to add what he calls a few more toppings to his sundae when the swimming competition beings here on Saturday — even as he faces a strong challenge from U.S. rival Ryan Lochte, who envisions these Games not so much Phelps' coronation but his own ascension to swimming's throne.
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The two face off immediately on Saturday, the first of eight days of the Olympic swimming competition. They will battle it out in the 400-meter individual medley, a grueling contest and one in which Lochte bested Phelps in their last match-up.
Which is perhaps why the Florida-based swimmer, offered a chance to write his own headline for the Games, suggested, "Ryan Lochte takes over."
Phelps, for his part doesn't play the pre-event trash-talk game. And in fact, any takeover would involve more than a single Olympics — coming into his fourth Games, Phelps already has more gold medals, 14 of his 16 total, than any other athlete, with Lochte farther below with three to date. Swimming in seven events, Phelps could add a couple more records to his name.
On Saturday, for example, should he win the 400 IM, he would become the first male swimmer to capture the gold medal in the same event in three Olympics. On Sunday, the 4x100-meter freestyle relay could net him his second medal, tying him with Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, the most decorated Olympian ever. By Tuesday, when he swims one of his iconic events, the 200-meter butterfly, he could surpass Latynina, who gave him one of her non-Olympic medals as a good-luck charm and her blessing to go for it.
But Phelps says it's not about medals, even as he keeps secret how he will measure success here.
"This is closure," said Phelps, who seems both ready to exit the competitive pool and nostalgic about all he has accomplished in it.
"I have had a lot of moments where, I don't know if I'll say I got choked up, but more emotional, because these are the last competitive moments I'll have in my career," he said.
His legacy appears in his mind, and that of Bob Bowman, the coach who has guided his career from the start. They are now business partners as well, owning the North Baltimore Aquatic Club at Meadowbrook pool in Mount Washington, where Phelps first learned to swim.
They addressed this week, for the first time at length, the firestorm created when another swimmer, Tyler Clary told his hometown paper, The Press-Enterprise of Riverside, Calif., that Phelps didn't work very hard, the implication being that he had skated by on innate physical gifts.
"The thing that made Michael great was work," Bowman said. "I just want to be very clear about that."
Phelps said Clary had apologized during a 10-minute meeting they had. Phelps said he told Clary "multiple times that no apology was necessary."
"Some people like to express their feelings in words, some like to express them in actions," Phelps said this week. "I've always done that by swimming, and that's how I'll continue to do it. People can say and do whatever they want. That's fine. I've gotten to where I am today from working hard.
"I'm very happy with my career and what I've done throughout it, and we're going to see what happens over the last week of it."
Phelps, though, mainly seemed in a relaxed rather than combative mode. At the media center here, where UN-style interpreters translated his words into 10 other languages, he began by pulling out his cellphone and taking a picture of the packed house of reporters from around the world hoping to get a question in. When the press officer called on a man "in the blue shirt," Phelps deadpanned, "His name is Apollo," referring to his friend, Olympic speed skater Apollo Ohno, one of NBC's celebri-porters on hand for the Games.
There are more than two swimmers here, of course, and more than American ones. Always a highlight of the Summer Games, swimming should provide quite the spectacle this year given the level of talent that will gather at the Aquatic Centre, said U.S. men's coach Gregg Troy.
"The whole swimming world is better than four years ago," said Troy, who is also Lochte's coach. "There's just a bigger talent pool."
Troy said that swimmers have become more athletic, they're staying in competitive shape longer, and new ones continue to join them. He dismissed the notion that Clary's remarks had any lingering effects, saying they were the kind of talk that competitive athletes engage in.
"If we don't have highly agressive guys, we don't have the right guys here," Troy said.
London promises to be the debut of swimming's next star, Missy Franklin, a bountifully talented and enthusiastic 17-year-old. Her energy, and love of dancing, is on full display in a YouTube featuring the U.S. swim team lip-synching and cavorting to the song of the summer, "Call Me Maybe."
This week, a more serious, at least for a time, Franklin was on display. Franklin lives with her parents near Aurora, Colo., and while at training camp in Vichy, France, learned the news of the shooting rampage at the movie theater showing The Dark Knight Rises and feared some of her friends might have been there. They were at a different theater, but Franklin said she was "shaken" nonetheless.
"All of my races are dedicated to everyone back home in Colorado,'' Franklin told reporters here. "Every one of my races will be focused on the people back home.''
Women's coach Teri McKeever said Franklin's mother had called her to make sure the young swimmer so far from home was okay. "When you grow up, you see more and more hard things," McKeever said she told Franklin. "That's what sucks about growing up."
Also poised to emerge is Allison Schmitt, Phelps' 22-year-old training partner. Women's coach Teri McKeever, when asked which events Schmitt might medal in, started ticking them off: the 200 free, the 400 free, the 400 free relay, the 800 free relay — in other words, all four that she will swim.
There are also some intriguing comebacks, including that of Athony Ervin, who left competitive swimming after winning gold as a 19-year-old in the 2000 Olympics — a medal he ultimately auctioned on eBay to raise money for victims of the Asian tsunami. Making his second team 12 years later, he found a very different Phelps.
"I remember that as young as I was, he was 15," said Ervin, who will compete in the 50-meter freestyle race. "Everyone was just wide-eyed, everyone saw the potential he had. We were in awe at that point, and he was just a kid.
"Now," Ervin said, "he's the king."