You can take Michael Phelps out of Baltimore. You can send him to his fourth Olympics. But what does he do during his downtime?
"I've just been watching 'The Wire,'" Phelps said Wednesday, referring to the HBO show that is perhaps as famous a Baltimore export as he is. "I know, I never felt the need to watch it before because it was five minutes from where I live."
He'll be watching more TV on Friday night, but it will be the opening ceremonies for his final Games. Despite being the veritable face of the Olympics after his last two Games, he's never marched with the other athletes to open the quadrennial competition because the swimming events begin the following morning.
Saturday marks the beginning of the end of his competitive career, and it will begin with what even Phelps calls a clash of the titans: He will swim in the grueling 400-meter individual medley against his American rival Ryan Lochte.
The race could present Phelps with an early opportunity to begin gilding the golden lily that is already his Olympic legacy with what would be his 15th gold medal. Or, it could be Lochte's chance to begin emerging from his more famous teammate's shadow. Either way, the 400 IM could open the swimming competition with quite the bang.
On Wednesday, though, the picture Phelps presented of the two swimmers since they moved into the athletes village here Monday was more like something out of a frat house, and a fairly tame one at that. Phelps has his own room — he doesn't like having a roommate during competition — but shares common areas with three double rooms, including Lochte and his roommate, Cullen Jones.
But while there's some occasional trash-talking about upcoming races, mostly the talk is about anything but their sport.
"Swimming is not a topic that Ryan and I talk about," he said. "When we're away from the pool, we're away from the pool. That's our time to sort of get away from everything and relax. We're not sitting there yelling at each other and saying we're going to do this, we're going to do that."
They play cards or watch movies and TV shows — especially since Jones came up with a way to hook up their laptops to the TV. The team has been together for much of the past month, since its members were selected in the qualifying trials in Omaha — first they trained in the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and then in Vichy, France — bonding over such rituals as the apparently very funny rookie skits that first-time Olympians do for the enjoyment of the veterans. (Phelps said they didn't have rookie skits his first Olympics, in 2000, and seemed happy to be grandfathered in after the practice began.)
As he begins his farewell to the Games, Phelps has been reflective, thinking back to the experiences he gathered, from Sydney to Athens to Beijing and now London.
"It brings back a lot of memories, and definitely I think about it a lot of times," Phelps said of when the national anthem is played. "Whether it's me being on the medal stand or here, there, certain places that I've heard it, there have been life-changing experiences."
But he also continues to make clear that there will be no change of heart and no turning up in Rio, the site of the 2016 Summer Games.
"I'm just ready to be done," said Phelps, who plans a vacation with friends after these Games. Then, he anticipates something of an ambassadorial role in swimming, in which he would continue to help grow the sport. He said he would also work more with kids, something he called "a passion" through his charitable foundation's support of water safety and wellness programs.
But for now, the Games loom, and Phelps faces just one less race than he swam in Beijing, where he swept his eight events, breaking the gold-medal record previously held by Mark Spitz. Even with seven races, he faces challenges, and not just from Lochte. In fact, he dropped one of the 200-meter freestyle from his schedule to save energy to help the U.S. team in what should be a tough 4x100 freestyle relay against Australia and France on Sunday.
As they have throughout his career, Phelps' mother, Debbie, and sisters, Hilary and Whitney, will be in the stands, as will a large contingency of friends.
"I have a big support group coming over from the states, from people I grew up with in elementary school and high school to good friends that I have around Baltimore and all around the country," he said. "Being able to spend time with them afterwards is something that's important. ... They're showing their support, so it's something that shows real friendship."
While Phelps is used to missing out on the opening ceremonies to avoid tiring his legs before he has to compete, by the time the Games close Aug. 12, he won't have that same issue.
"I'm planning on walking," he said of those ceremonies.
twitter.com/jean_marbellaCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun