How does he do it?
How does Michael Phelps awaken at the athletes' village, eat, take a 20-minute bus ride to the Olympic Aquatic Centre, warm up, race, warm down, get a massage, bus back to the village, eat, sleep, wake up and do it all again in the evening, then undergo two doping tests at different locations?And what gives him the strength to get up the next morning and do it again?
The swim world has long marveled at Phelps' ability to thrive under mental and physical stress. It has put him on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the second time in a month and given NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw goose bumps he normally reserves for The Greatest Generation.
That quality will face a severe test today, when the 19-year-old from Rodgers Forge nonetheless figures to take another stride toward separating him from the rest of his sport's greats and residing alongside its greatest, Mark Spitz.
At 8:18 p.m. (1:18 p.m. in Baltimore), Phelps will swim the final of the 200-meter individual medley. About 20 minutes later, Phelps will have to produce again, in the semifinals of the 100 butterfly.
Phelps has history's seven fastest times in the 200 IM. No other finalist has gone under 1 minute, 59 seconds in an event in which he dropped the world record to 1:55.94 a year ago in College Park, what the sport's statisticians rate as the single best swim of this century.
Victory would give Phelps his third individual gold medal here. Only Spitz won more than two in a single Olympics.
Johnny Weissmuller (1924, 1928) and Don Schollander (1964) were held back by a limited Olympic program. West Germany's Michael Gross couldn't get a hat trick in 1984. Nor could Australia's Ian Thorpe, who raced brilliantly in last night's 100 freestyle final, but took bronze behind Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands and Roland Schoeman of South Africa.
Thorpe is competing in six events here. He appreciates the demands on Phelps, who will become the first to attempt eight and most likely win a medal in all.
"The hardest part isn't competing," Thorpe said. "It's the fact that we're waiting for buses, food isn't there, there are drug tests every night. Sleep at night is starting to get shorter and shorter, and you just make sure you manage your time as well as you can."
Yesterday was Phelps' lightest load, with the first two rounds of the 200 IM, no finals and no blood tests at another site. He needed the break after the emotion of Wednesday, when golds in the 200 butterfly and 800 freestyle relay kept him up until 2 a.m.
"I've got to get more sleep than I did last night," said Phelps, who found an Athens routine that works. "The thing I'm having in the dining hall twice a day is pizza and pasta, and that's all I've been eating. After the meet is done, it's all-you-can-eat at McDonald's."
Moments before, Phelps had nonchalantly set an Olympic record of 1:58.52 in his 200 IM semifinal. He sipped a can of an instant breakfast drink, FDA-approved and thus a safer restorative given the epidemic of tainted nutritional supplements blamed for positive doping tests.
The issue was raised when the American women shaved more than two seconds off the world record in the 800 freestyle relay last night. Dana Vollmer, the third leg, was born in 1987, three months after East Germany's systematic use of banned steroids produced the previous standard.
"It's burned people a lot," U.S. women's coach Mark Schubert said of that tainted mark. "We all know the reason why. We're all proud to have that record back."
Schubert is known for driving his athletes to produce at this level. It's obvious Bob Bowman, Phelps' boss, also has prepared his athlete well, in contrast to the second-guessing that is following Eddie Reese, the U.S. men's head coach.
At Longhorn Aquatics and the University of Texas, Reese preaches rest, but the process of tapering (cutting back on training) has been a delicate one for his swimmers.
Aaron Peirsol should get his second backstroke gold tonight, but Brendan Hansen couldn't back up the world records he set in both breaststrokes at the U.S. trials. He followed a silver in the 100 breaststroke with a bronze in last night's 200.
The condition of Ian Crocker pertains to Phelps. Crocker complained of a sore throat after his leadoff leg doomed the United States to a bronze in the 400 freestyle relay. He said he felt better after the prelims of the 100 freestyle, but he couldn't even get to the semifinals.
Crocker is the world-record holder in the 100 butterfly, but has he lost the edge he had on Phelps at the 2003 world championships and U.S. trials? Can he hold off Phelps in that final tomorrow? Has he succumbed to the pressure that appeared to consume Hansen?
"I was so emotionally ready for the trials," Hansen said last night. "To come to the Olympics six weeks later, it's tough for a swimmer."
How is Phelps handling it all?
"I'm having a blast," he said. "I was talking to some of my friends from home last night [Wednesday]. They said, `You won two golds.' This is amazing."
On a scale of 1 to 10, Bowman rates Phelps' taper an 8.5, and it did not include many moments working on his tan. Phelps' lactate, a measure of the body's ability to produce oxygen, is constantly monitored by USA Swimming.
Where did he record his highest lactate? At a training camp at Stanford University, in a workout the week after the U.S. trials. While others have trained 15 miles a week since the trials, Phelps routinely did twice that amount.
"I was working out the other morning with a doctor from Fiji," Reese said. "He said, `Michael Phelps must have been born to swim.' He does things no one has ever done. He just goes forever."