The Baltimore swimmer thrilling the crowd on the last night of the Indianapolis Grand Prix with a blazing win in a marquee match-up against Ryan Lochte, the friend and rival he is expected to duel in the London Olympics this summer. Phelps led each leg of the 200-meter individual medley Saturday, finishing with the fastest time in the world this year, 1 minute 56.31 seconds.
But beyond the race results — Phelps won three of his four races here, including the ever challenging 400-meter individual medley — the meet was an opportunity for him take stock of his progress as he prepares for his fourth and final games.
"I'm probably like, I don't know, on a scale of one and 10, maybe a seven-and-a-half or eight," Phelps said Saturday night after winning the race in which Lochte came in third. "I'm headed in the right direction.
"The most important thing will be the next 90 days," he added. "We're going to work on the small things."
Among the fine-tuning Phelps said he'll be working on will be details like getting his feet to the wall faster on turns and getting that one final stroke in at the end of the race.
It was his failure to do the latter on the first day of competition, in the 100-meter butterfly race that he actually won, that had his longtime coach Bob Bowman steaming. Phelps glided to the wall when he had ample time for a full stroke that would have given him a faster finish time. Bowman said it was far too late in his training regimen for Phelps to be muffing the details like that.
A chastened Phelps redeemed himself the following day with another of his trademark, last-fraction-of-a-second victories — and, to boot, in the race he most loves to hate, the 400 IM.
Phelps won the 400 IM by pulling past Tyler Clary in the lane next to him and touching the wall first by a mere half-second. It was a turnaround from 2010, when Clary but not Phelps qualified for the event in the Pan Pacific Championships.
Phelps said the fact that he is turning in better performances in longer rather than shorter races tells him that his conditioning is improving.
"I've been doing a lot better in my endurance," he said after the 400 IM win. "I guess one thing I've learned over the years is how to pace myself."
Phelps had slackened up on the rigorous training after the 2008 Olympics, saying it took him a while to rediscover his passion for the sport. Now, though, he says it's back — he's training hard, and getting results in the Grand Prix races he's competed in this season.
The series also allows Phelps to test out different combinations of races as he and Bowman decide which events to enter in London, which they hope will end the Baltimore swimmer's already unprecedented Olympic career on a high note.
Phelps, for example, had registered to swim in the 200-meter butterfly race in Indianapolis, but after posting the world's fastest time this year in the Columbus Grand Prix in early March, he decided not to swim it here.
Phelps is scheduled to compete in the Charlotte UltraSwim Grand Prix in May. The Olympic trials are in Omaha in July, then he'll head for some more altitude training in Utah, having already done about 3 1/2 weeks in Colorado in February.
His 400 IM victory here had many hoping that he would add the race to his London lineup, envisioning a Phelps-Lochte showdown on the first day of the games' swimming competition. Any match-up of the two of them will be "a dogfight," Phelps said.
Phelps left that door at least partially open, although he said he fears the demanding event, coming on the first day of the Olympics swimming schedule, would wear him out for later races.
Even as he steps up preparations for London, Phelps has been on something of a sentimental journey recently. Every pool calls to mind previous races there. Indianpolis, in particular, is special because it was in this pool, the Nat, as it's affectionately known, that the self-described "scrawny little 15-year-old" Phelps qualified for his first Olympics in 2000.
Then as now, mother Debbie and sister Hilary were in the stands — although they recalled this week that they had obstructed-view seats back then and had to defy a fire marshall's rule against standing in an aisle to watch Michael swim. The one photo that Bowman keeps on his desk back in Baltimore of Michael and himself was taken here.
"We've made a couple DP moments," Phelps said with a grin Saturday night, using family lingo for those tear-inducing memories that his mother has gathered over the course of watching him race. It's a term the Baltimore County middle school principal uses herself as a hashtag when she tweets from her son's farewell tour.
With the end of his competitive swimming days approaching, Phelps himself has seemed nostalgic this week, talking about how he's been keeping a journal to commit his memories to paper.
"It's crazy that 20 years ago, I started swimming," Phelps told a group of children at a Boys & Girls Club earlier this week before competition began. "It started with a dream."
The appearance was part of Phelps' work on his charitable foundation, which promotes swimming and wellness for kids. He has long said he wanted not just to advance his own career but that of his sport, and the foundation is part of his portfolio as swimming's top ambassador. It's something he'll no doubt continue after his competition days end.
Fans and fellow swimmers alike, though, are relishing these final months of Phelps' racing days.
"He looks great," said Lindsay Mintenko, who as Lindsay Benko swam in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics with Phelps and remembers him as a "very goofy" yet focused 16-year-old.
Phelps said he and Mintenko were just reminiscing about seeing their names painted on the wall on either side of the Nat's diving platforms after they made their first Olympic teams. Both said reliving those memories has made what is likely Phelps' last race here special.
"I watched Michael grow up. He's always had the quiet confidence," said Mintenko, who won gold medals in both Olympics as part of the 200-meter freestyle relay team and now serves as the managing director of the U.S. national team. "He's a fierce competitor."