The swimmer with the Midas touch threw back his head and laughed as he considered the question: Is competing this weekend at a meet he hasn't attempted in about three years a way to bring out the kid in him or does it make him feel like an old man?
"A little bit of both," Michael Phelps said as he got a rubdown after his preliminary heats Friday at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club's Christmas Invitational.
The meet, in its 39th year, attracted swimmers ranging in age from 8 to, well, a Phelpsian 24.
The 14-time Olympic gold medalist said teammates Todd Patrick, 24, and Ben Hesen, 23, noticed the difference right away.
"When we were warming up, we were like, 'God, we feel so old,'but being here brings back a lot of memories of growing up and being like these guys are," Phelps said as younger swimmers wandered by. "I remember piling on the bleachers and hanging out with all my friends and teammates. It feels cool to be back here for a Christmas meet again."
The feeling was mutual, as swimmers jockeyed for position near the starting blocks with their phone cameras and leaned in to hear exchanges between Phelps and longtime coach Bob Bowman.
For competitors like Ryan Stumpf, 20, a Naval Academy midshipman, just being in the next lane to the world's most-decorated swimmer and keeping pace with him for a pool length or two was a thrill.
"That was crazy," Stumpf said after the 200-yard freestyle preliminary. "I stayed with him as long as I could."
The three-day event at the Naval Academy's Lejeune Hall that ends Sunday is a short-course competition, meaning the distances are in yards rather than meters. A pool length is 25 yards, and with the way Phelps explodes out of the blocks and kicks underwater, fans and other spectators aren't seeing much of him. With just six powerful strokes, he's at the far end and making his turn.
"It's great for him to practice doing that, and it makes his long swimming that much better," Bowman said.
After winning five gold medals and a silver at the world championships in Rome in July, Phelps hardly made a ripple at two World Cup meets in Europe this fall, flying home without a single top-of-the-podium finish.
Bowman and his swimmer won't read anything into the World Cup results. First, because Phelps eschewed the head-to-ankle speedsuits embraced by elite swimmers who set more than 40 records at worlds. Those suits have been outlawed by FINA, the world governing body, beginning in January, but Phelps switched back to the waist-to-knee jammer suit to get a head start on the pack.
But more importantly, the two men said, is that their game plan has Phelps rounding into form in August for two meets: the U.S. nationals, which serve as the qualifier for the 2011 world championships, and Pan Pacific Championships in Irvine, Calif.
"We really just kind of build up, build up, build up for that one big time during the year, and that's the peak for me," Phelps said. "Everything has its place. There are little steppingstones and goals we want to hit to see if we're going to be ready at the end of the summer. That's how it's always been. We've been successful that way, so why change anything?"
Bowman agreed. "I'm going to say he's about 75 percent. His brain is very much into it so that's when I know that he'll get into shape quickly."
On the swimmer's self-improvement list: losing a little more weight and getting stronger.
"I think I'm in better shape than when I was in Europe. But I still think there's a lot of work to be done," Phelps said. "I think the things that need to change are the smaller things, small tweaks I can fix easily. I'm in a better state of mind than I was when I first came back this year, and I'm actually excited and happy to be back and working out."
Phelps' last meet of the year is the Duel in the Pool next weekend in Manchester, England. The event will pit U.S. swimmers against a combined squad from Germany, Italy and Great Britain, and also will serve as the final international competition for high-tech suits.
Bowman and Phelps think some swimmers might have trouble adjusting.
"It's a big difference. Your core body strength has to be so much stronger with the suit change to jammers. It very well may be something psychological that people will have to go through," Phelps said. "But I like it. I was talking to a friend of mine about the fact that we sort of grew up in jammers. I'm used to swimming in jammers, and I guess it's the newer generation of swimmers who started with the full-body suits that have to make the change."
At the end of the month, his training will move to Colorado's high altitude for three weeks, a place where Phelps usually excels.
But before that, Phelps will host the family Christmas celebration at his house - a first.
"I'll take care of the tree and I'll make sure it's clean, but they'll do the cooking," he said.
When asked whether it's true that he already has his "game face" on - the beard grown in Europe is gone - Phelps laughed again.
"I just clipped down. Nothing too big. We're getting ready to spend a couple weeks in Colorado, and that's sort of where I really grow it out and do something crazy with it," he said. "I figure around the Christmas holiday I try to look as clean as I can - at least for a couple of weeks."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun