BALTIMORE — It is a perfect late spring morning. The sun already has dried out the remains of an overnight rain, and the birds are chirping so loudly, they nearly drown out conversation during an al fresco breakfast outside the Whole Foods in the city's Mount Washington neighborhood.
Conor Dwyer is plowing through eggs, potatoes, yogurt, granola and fruit after finishing his first of two daily workouts at the nearby North Baltimore Aquatic Club, where the elite training group includes seven swimmers from four countries who have won an aggregate 27 Olympic gold medals and 37 total medals.
After breakfast, he will go for a nap at the $1 million harbor loft owned by the man responsible for most of those medals, who was absent from the first practice this day to do the photo shoot that would wind up as a cover of ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue.
"We don't do much in the house except watch TV and play video games," Michael Phelps will say later.
Yet Phelps, the Baltimore native who has returned to the sport, has become as much a mentor as a host to Dwyer. His influence extends from the Orioles cap that the passionate Cubs fan from Winnetka is wearing to the technique help and racing advice the greatest swimmer of all time willingly provides, even though he and Dwyer compete in several of the same events.
"I was shocked at how much Michael was giving other people tips," Dwyer said. "You don't often see that in swimming."
It is more than a form of noblesse oblige from a man who has won 18 gold and 22 Olympic medals — one of them, the one that made Phelps the all-time Olympic medals leader, from the victorious 800-meter freestyle relay in London on which Dwyer swam the second leg.
"The kid is very talented," Phelps, 29, said of Dwyer, 25, "and he is just starting to realize how much the little things really do add up. He is still new to the scene. It will be cool to see what happens over the next couple of years."
Those two years between now and the next Olympics begin in earnest at the U.S. championships on Aug. 6-10 in Irvine, Calif., where the results will play a major part in qualifying for the 2015 world championships. Dwyer intends to swim the 100, 200 and 400 freestyles and the 200 individual medley at nationals.
Dwyer's career had a late start, took a circuitous route and needed an intervention by the greatest female distance swimmer in history before winding up in the orbit of Phelps, whom the NBAC coach, Bob Bowman, says is "kind of on another planet."
When Dwyer moved in with Phelps a year ago, his family could not help but marvel at the turn of events as they drove his Audi Q5 and clothes to Baltimore.
"We were all nervous to meet Michael at first," said Dwyer's mother, Jeanne. "The whole thing is pretty amazing, really."
The whole thing began when Dwyer was 3 at his grandparents' backyard pool in Wilmette. That is where Jeanne Dwyer taught not only her five children, but also dozens of other North Shore kids to swim.
She was an All-American at Florida State, a sprint freestyler and breaststroker who understood the mechanics of the sport so well, the basics she gave Conor in the 16-yard pool would become a solid foundation for the swimmer he has become.
"My strokes always have been good," he said.
Dwyer seemed such a natural in the water that the gym teacher at Faith, Hope and Charity grammar school in Winnetka always reminded the boy of that when he excelled at another sport. If he scored a touchdown or 20 points in a basketball game, Dennis Stonequist would say, "That's good, but you were meant to swim."
Dwyer would put swimming aside for six years, starting again as a freshman at Loyola Academy, where Stonequist, now the school's alumni director, was the swim coach. It wasn't until his final two years at Loyola that Dwyer dropped his other sports and became serious about swimming.
But growth plate issues with his right shoulder held him back, as did his size. Dwyer, now 6-foot-5 and 190 pounds, was 5-11, 135 as a Loyola senior.
"He was so close to quitting as a sophomore because of the injury," Stonequist said. "But he always had this athletic drive in every sport, and I knew if he did get the size and get healthy, he would be really good."