Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps and teammate Aaron Peirsol (left) celebrate winning the men's 100-meter medley relay. (Getty Images / August 2, 2009)

- His words sounded hopeful, rather than pretentious.

Whether Michael Phelps was in Barcelona, Athens or even Long Beach, Calif., at big meets and small ones, he has resolutely stayed on message since 2004.

Phelps spoke of wanting to elevate the sport during non-Olympic years, keeping swimming afloat once the last anthem was played. Elbow room on the ESPN crawl and highlight shows in 2009 and 2010?

You almost felt like saying: Good luck with that.

It seemed a far more difficult prospect than winning the eight gold medals he took home from Beijing less than a year ago.

Years from now, Phelps' greatest accomplishment at the World Championships may not have been that barrier-breaking, epic victory against Milorad Cavic of Serbia in the 100-meter butterfly, one of his five gold medal results in Rome (the last one came Sunday in a world-record performance in the 400-meter medley relay with teammates Aaron Peirsol, Eric Shanteau and David Walters in 3 minutes 27.28 seconds). How about putting swimming on the front pages and on national sports shows three years removed from the London Olympics?

"He had something he wanted to do. Like this," said Phelps' longtime coach, Bob Bowman, gesturing to the packed house of a pool at the Foro Italico complex. "To have this live on NBC, that's exactly what he wanted to do."

That, in part, was why Phelps decided to go forward when he could have packed away his Speedo LZR Racer after the Beijing Olympics. There was a matter of unfinished business to consider when he mulled retirement after the publication of the bong photo in a British tabloid in January.

"It's a start," said Phelps, who had two individual golds, one silver medal in the 200 freestyle and three gold medals in relays. "For me, I just have more things I wanted to do. That's why I wanted to come back. I don't care if anyone says it's a bad idea or not. It's something that I wanted and that's why I'm doing it."

Granted, the elevation of swimming in Rome came from something of a perfect storm - his first international meet after the tabloid controversy, polyurethane bodysuit chaos and perfect foils in the pool for Phelps, one new (Paul Biedermann of Germany) and one old (Cavic).

And the world records, of course.

"I'm sure it made it more fun with all the records," said USA Swimming's Mark Schubert. "But I'm sure glad to see it going back to normal."

There were 43 in the eight-day meet. Four more world records came on the final day. Many of the records, mostly fueled by the performance-enhancing buoyant bodysuits (which will be banned in 2010), will stand for a "long time," as veteran Dara Torres put it.

Schubert is wondering how Phelps (and others) will adapt once the clock is turned back when the suits are banned.

"The only thing I'm a little concerned with is going to be our whole mental switch with the times because Michael is very time-driven and records have been important to him," he said. "But it's going to be important that he do that mental switch."