There are still award shows to attend, trips to take and commercials to shoot. Such is a superstar's life. But twice during the past week, his schedule permitting, has started swimming again. He has climbed back into the pool in which it all began - Meadowbrook Athletic Club in Mount Washington - and has begun training for the 2012 Olympics under the watchful eye of his coach, Bob Bowman.
Phelps' relationship with Bowman has always been complex and fascinating. Their loyalty to each other has never wavered in their decade together, and in that time they have become, for all intents and purposes, like family. But in the same way that family relationships evolve and change, so will Bowman's and Phelps'.
Bowman doesn't want to be the snarling, barking motivational guru who lords over Phelps' training sessions like a drill sergeant. Not anymore.
"I'm retiring from that," Bowman said. "I don't think it's really necessary."
That might have been necessary when Phelps was striving for previously unreachable records such as eight gold medals in a single Olympics, but the 23-year-old swimmer's legacy is now secure. He's the most decorated Olympian of all time. His goals have changed. He and Bowman want something different for the final act of Phelps' career four years from now in London.
"He needs to do this now because he loves it," Bowman said.
Not surprisingly, Phelps agrees.
"I think Bob and I have the kind of relationship where we understand one another because of all we've gone through together," said Phelps, who took a few minutes out of a business trip to speak with reporters by phone yesterday, when he was named the United States Olympic Committee's Male Athlete of the Year for the second time. "Now, he can be more relaxed, and the environment around the pool will be more relaxed. Over the past two days, I've never seen him [as] relaxed in all the time we've worked together. It's been good."
Bowman hinted during the Olympics that it wasn't fair for Phelps to grind his way through swim meets for the rest of his life. Just once, Bowman said, Phelps deserves to come to a competition and enjoy the atmosphere, to not have every minute of his week, in and out of the pool, measured by a stopwatch. Someone, at some point, might win eight events in a single Olympics again. But it won't be Phelps.
"I'll never swim eight events at a major comp again," Phelps said. "I'm almost positive that my last eight-event meet was Beijing. I think I will have more time to take in the experiences, possibly even be in the stands and cheer. I haven't had that, to really be part of a team. When I was swimming so many events, it was literally eat, sleep, swim. Eat, sleep, swim. I think that's something I'm looking forward to, and I think it will be fun."
Besides, right now, the events that matter for Phelps are a long way off. That's a good thing, in his eyes and Bowman's, and it's part of the reason he'll likely train no more than three times a week until he gets back into a regular routine. Phelps recently returned to China to shoot a commercial for the car company Mazda, which recently signed him to a seven-figure deal. He also signed an endorsement deal with the sandwich chain Subway, and he has been playing poker competitively in Las Vegas. He was in Pittsburgh for the AFC championship game and plans to attend the Super Bowl. His schedule has been packed.
"I have no problem falling asleep by 10:30 now," Phelps said. "The other day [after working out] I was completely worn out. I was just absolutely dead. ... It's not easy, and I'm in a world of pain. It's all over my body. I'm almost in a state of shock. Every part of my body is literally hurting."
Bowman says Phelps will likely swim competitively for the first time since Beijing at the Austin Grand Prix on March 5, a short-course event, and that they'll travel to California for high-altitude work in May. But the spring and summer will mostly be a tuneup for the 2009 FINA world championships, to be held in Rome in late July. It's likely that will be the first test of whether Phelps can make the transition from the middle-distance events to the sprints.
"I'm still in the process of working on goals right now," Phelps said. "Bob and I roughly talked about it, but nothing has been written down on paper. In the next week, I'll get in there and we'll put down ideas in paper."
Much like Bowman and Phelps' partnership, the future of North Baltimore Aquatic Club is evolving. Bowman recently wooed two of the world's best backstrokers, Hayley McGregory and Nick Thoman, into training at Meadowbrook. McGregory just barely missed making the U.S. Olympic team in 2004 and 2008 despite setting a world record in the 100-meter backstroke at the U.S. trials. Thoman came within 0.03 of a second of the world record in the 100-meter backstroke at a meet last year.
"It's a good start," Bowman said, indicating that he isn't done recruiting.
Bowman said he's still moving forward with plans to improve the Meadowbrook facilities but that sorting through the red tape has been slow. But he's confident the company he and Phelps formed, Aquatic Ventures LLC, will move forward with their vision. In December, the club was awarded a $100,000 grant from the USOC to help move toward that goal.
Bowman, meanwhile, has sold most of his financial interest in several racehorses he co-owned and trained. He's building his dream home in Monkton and wants to devote more time to it.
"I'll get back into the horses for sure," Bowman said.
For now, there are a number of swimmers who need his attention. Including a very achy Phelps.
"He knew it was going to happen," Phelps said. "He knew it wasn't going to be easy for me. But he did send me a text the other day to tell me it was good to have me back."