ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- In one corner of the Donald B. Canham Natatorium, a massive brick building on the University of Michigan campus that houses a 50-meter pool, there is a tiny clock with glowing red numbers.
It's a countdown, a reminder of how many days, hours, even tenths of a second remain until the start of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Today, for one brief moment, the clock will read: 100 days.
Michael Phelps might see this clock at 6:30 a.m. when he arrives at the pool for a two-hour practice. It's the first of two daily practices that will probably leave him sore, cranky and exhausted enough that he will almost certainly fall asleep with the television on. He almost always falls asleep with the TV on.
Or he might not see the clock. It has been ticking now for more than three years, and though he glances at it once a week, no one numerical moment is more important than the next.
To Phelps, they are all important. Each day brings him closer to the 10-day stretch when the world will be watching as he tries to do what no Olympian has ever done - win eight gold medals in a single Games.
And though there have been setbacks and distractions this past year - a broken wrist, a handful of commercial shoots and promotional appearances, some uneven training - there will be no excuses in Beijing. He vows to be ready.
"It seems like just yesterday I was in Athens," Phelps says.
It was not just yesterday, though. So much has changed since Phelps was a wiry teenager who lived in Rodgers Forge with his mom, trained with the North Baltimore Aquatic Club each morning, then showed up at Pete's Grill on Guilford Avenue to wolf down a huge breakfast.
Phelps is a 22-year-old man now, thicker physically, wiser emotionally and more confident socially than he was the last time the world put a magnifying glass on him. He wasn't quite ready for what happened four years ago, when he stated that it was his goal to win eight gold medals in Athens, breaking Mark Spitz's record from the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.
"I think all the attention" came as a surprise, Phelps says of Athens. "I didn't expect all of it. Being thrown in front of hundreds of different media, doing all those commercials, I was just like ... wow. What do I do? I had no idea how to act. But now it is just part of the territory. It comes with everything."
And will it be easier this time?
"I think so, yeah," he says. He's eating a turkey sandwich after practice at his favorite downtown deli, Maize N Blue, and pausing every few minutes to check his BlackBerry. "Everything is easier when you experience something firsthand. It's how you learn things. If I messed something up in the past, I know I learned from it. ... I don't see my mistakes as mistakes. They're something I needed to do to learn from them."
Phelps is less guarded with his image than he once was. He'll roll his eyes at the occasional dumb question, curse when the situation calls for it, comment on attractiveness of a passing female and not bother to hide his poker addiction, just like so many 22-year-olds.
But it is far more difficult these days to get a slice of his time. His time and his privacy are closely guarded by Octagon, the management group that handles all his non-swimming affairs. In a few weeks, an official "media blackout" will begin, and aside from a few interviews poolside after competitions, Phelps will be silent. It's a plan put together by Octagon and Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, to get him prepared for Beijing.
So many people want a piece of him. At swim meets, kids half his age will line up for half an hour, hoping to get his autograph. Almost always, Phelps will wander over to sign T-shirts and swim caps and pose for pictures for as long as he can. Rarely does 10 seconds pass without someone calling out his name.
"From my perspective, I think my life is pretty simple," Phelps says. "I think if someone else looked at my life, they'd think it was complicated. But I've gone through all this stuff before. I've done this so many times. Since Athens, I'm used to everything."
Realizing the stakes
In Ann Arbor, there is, for the most part, peace. Ever since Phelps cracked a tiny bone in his wrist in October - an injury he says occurred when he slipped on ice and fell while climbing into a friend's car late at night - he says he realized just how much is at stake this year. Phelps was so distraught after the injury, he was scared to call Bowman and asked Michigan's medical trainer to do it instead. Eventually, the trainer put Phelps on the phone.
"He was as upset as I can ever remember him being," Bowman says. "He was devastated. He kept saying, 'It's over. I'm finished.' I told him, 'Michael, I can't be sure, but I don't think anyone has ever died from a broken wrist.' Let's just see what happens."
The wrist healed, leaving only a purple scar, and Phelps says now that if he could, he'd remain in a bubble until August, just eating, sleeping and swimming. Bowman and Jon Urbanchek - an assistant swim coach at Michigan and another member of Phelps' intimate circle - recently persuaded Phelps to move out of his townhouse and away from downtown, where the night life was a constant distraction and temptation.
It's still a struggle, though, for him to put his body through hell twice a day inside the Canham Natatorium. He arrives at the pool for a recent afternoon workout clutching a blue Gatorade, his Detroit Tigers cap turned sideways and a mean scowl on his face. Urbanchek, a legendary swim coach who is in his 70s and who often plays the good cop to Bowman's bad cop, senses immediately that Phelps is in a bad mood.
"Turn your hat around!" Urbanchek teases. "Get over here and do this workout!"
"I'm not doing this s-,"Phelps grumbles back. "I'm not doing any of this s-."
But of course he does do the workout, just as he always does. Even when Bowman and Urbanchek require that he swim 20,000 meters in a single practice, which they often do.
"I've had my ups and downs this year," Phelps says. "I've had hiccups like my wrist and I've had times when I wasn't training real well. I'll get in a rhythm where I'll have like two weeks of good training, then I'll have two crappy days. ... I get tired, grouchy, sore and it affects me. When it does, stay clear. Because I'm not a pleasant person to deal with."
Lights, camera ...
The following day, he's back in the natatorium at 8 a.m., shooting a commercial for Rosetta Stone, a language software company that hired him as a spokesman. He has been using the software periodically, hoping to learn a little Chinese before Beijing, but beyond a few words, he hasn't picked up much yet.
The shoot goes on for hours at three different locations and with four wardrobe changes. In the hours of tedium, however, there is one moment worth savoring, one moment that says a lot about who Phelps is.
It happens when Phelps is in the water, after the director asks him to swim half the length of the pool just so the cameraman can get a feel for what the shot will look like.
Phelps puts his head down, launches into his butterfly, and the camera rolls. It's easy to be mesmerized when you see him swim up close, especially when he swims the butterfly, his long arms rising out of the water, then crashing down as he kicks his feet in rhythm, all of it propelling him forward faster than any human being ever dreamed was possible. After a few seconds, and maybe 10 meters, the director feels good about the shot. He's ready to roll tape.
"OK, Mike," he shouts. "Cut! Cut! You can come back!"
Maybe Phelps doesn't hear him. Or maybe he does, and he just doesn't care. He keeps moving forward, arms extended, legs kicking and water churning. It's not even 25 meters - and there will be half a million swims like it between now and Beijing - but for the next few seconds, everyone will wait.
Because Phelps isn't stopping until he puts his hand on the wall.