"I was kind of just like, 'Wow, that's this person, that's that person, there he is, there she is. This is really cool,' " he said in a recent interview, channeling his wide-eyed 15-year-old self at the 2000 Games. "So I was not really focused on what I needed to do, what I was there to do."
He was so distracted, he forgot to tie his suit before the semifinals. While he escaped without a wardrobe malfuction — "Everything stayed together, so it was good" — he also failed to medal.
But Phelps didn't return to Baltimore empty-handed. Twelve years later, the innocent abroad at his first Olympics is now the veritable living legend heading to a fourth and final Games, having figured this out: To go big, you have to go small.
"I think that was just something I learned — having to prepare myself, make sure I did all the right things and pay attention to all the small things because in the end that's what made the big difference."
On Saturday, a day after the Opening Ceremonies for the London Games, the now 27-year-old Phelps will slouch into the Aquatic Centre for the first of his seven events. The crowd likely will go insane, fully aware that they are bearing witness to the final flourish atop something already quite extraordinary.
Phelps, though, will be somewhere inside his own head, in a place walled off by his headphones, the unreadable mask that is his game face and his singular focus. After a bit of housekeeping, toweling off his starting block and making sure the angled push-off segment isn't loose, he'll climb aboard. In the stillness that falls as swimmers and spectators alike anticipate the starting buzzer, Phelps will loosen up by swinging his arms, crossing them first in front then in back. They are so long and hyper-extended that he slaps his own back, a self-flagellation that cracks like a whip in the soon-to-be broken silence.
And then he'll take off, slicing through the air — and then the water.
The adage that you can never swim in the same river twice is certainly true for Phelps. He is an older swimmer now, but also a smarter one. There are competitors who have started to catch and even surpass him, particularly his main rival, Ryan Lochte, determined that London will host swimming's own version of the changing of the guard.
But if Phelps is swimming in vastly different waters these days, it's because he changed their course: No swimmer has ever brought more attention, or big-money sponsorships, to the sport, nor set the bar as high on what is possible.
As the number of opportunities to see him race dwindle, each rises in significance for those who collect them like baseball cards in the shoeboxes of their memories.
There are aficionados, for example, of his 200-meter freestyle in Beijing — his coach, Bob Bowman, first among them — who consider it his most technically perfect race. The most recent entry to the pantheon has to be the 200-meter individual medley in the Omaha trials, in which he and Lochte, in some sort of Vulcan body meld, matched stroke for stroke and seemingly breath for breath until Phelps somehow out-fingernailed him to the wall.
"Time slows down for him," Lenny Krayzelberg is convinced.
Krayzelberg, a four-time gold medalist in the 2000 and 2004 Games, will be in London for his former teammate's farewell to the sport. Phelps rises to the occasion better than any other athlete he's seen, Krayzelberg says, seizing the moment and controlling rather than submitting to the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the Games.
"I don't think I've ever seen someone perform better on the biggest stage of the world than Michael," he said. "Maybe he has an extra gear."
Indeed, the wonder of Phelps these days is no longer that of the raw talent, the child prodigy who seemed to break world records as a matter of course. It is that now, even as an older swimmer, and one who has many more distractions and fewer things left to prove, that he still finds a way to win.
Phelps arrived at the trials in Omaha late last month feeling what he called less "peppy" after six weeks of altitude training in Colorado, and he had gone there directly from a Grand Prix race in Charlotte and an Olympics media event in Dallas. In press conference after press conference, he talked about getting off to a slow start in one race, not hitting his turns as powerfully in another, popping up to check out the scoreboard instead of pouncing to a fast finish in yet another.
"It was a pretty crappy first 50" meters, went a typical self-assessment after one race, "and a pretty terrible finish."
And yet, he won that race, the 100-meter butterfly in which he was sixth in the first lap but, somehow, passed those five swimmers to finish first. In fact, he won every race but one, the 400-meter individual medley, and even then, his second-place finish was all he needed to qualify to swim it in London.
He has always been something of a closer — thrilling, last-fraction-of-a-second victories being something of a trademark — but now, what the world is watching for is how Phelps will finish his competitive career. The fact he is opting for a fourth Games, when he could have ridden off into the sunset at the very peak of his record-breaking eight gold medal sweep in Beijing, both impresses and baffles. What could possibly be left for him?
"I just want to be able to look at it five years, 10years down the road, if I can look back and say I did everything that I wanted to do then that's all that matters," Phelps said during an interview in Omaha after the trials. "I have goals and things that I want to accomplish, that's the only thing I'm after right now."
What those goals are, Phelps refuses to specify. The Phelps of today is something of a cypher — or, at least, a political consultant's dream: He invariably stays on message, returning repeatedly to the same set of mostly bland generalities. It is no doubt a soul-preserving measure when you're asked some variant of the same question over and over again, but it also reflects a certain discpline and wariness that Phelps has developed over the years when it comes to his public face.
After years in the spotlight, whether during his Olympic highs or his personal lows — most notoriously, the tabloid photo of him hitting a marijuana bong — Phelps now tends to deflect personal questions and guards what privacy he can.
But his friends say he is a happier person these days, compared to when he was more single-mindedly driven.
"I feel like in the past four years he has mellowed a lot more," said Allison Schmitt, 22, who has trained with Phelps since she was a high school student in Michigan, where the Baltimore swimmer had moved with Bowman in the years before the Beijing Games.
"He's a lot more laid back now," said Schmitt, a rising star in the sport poised for a breakout Games. "He already has experienced every possible situation, so I think he knows how to react to whatever happens."
Phelps would point to Schmitt as the reason for his more relaxed self, saying she lightens up the atmosphere with her jokes and singing, N'Sync making a recent appearance. In their off-hours during training, they and other swimmers will play board games — Phelps is apparently quite good at Scattergories — watch movies and talk shop.
"He's just pretty normal outside the pool," agrees Chris Brady, his roommate this past year in Baltimore. "If you came to the house, we would be watching sports or playing video games like any other guys" in their 20s.
Brady, 24, a Delaware native whom Bowman recruited to the University of Michigan when he was coaching there, moved to Baltimore after graduation to continue training at North Baltimore Aquatic Club. To help him save money and since they both were on the road so much, Phelps invited Brady to move into a spare bedroom and join a household that included Herman, the bulldog the Baltimore swimmer got after Athens — his mom Debbie having promised him a dog if he won gold — and the more recently adopted Stella, a Catahoula mix that he fell in love with while filming a Today show segment.
For Brady, swimming with Phelps was like a golfer getting to play with Tiger Woods: You can't help but get better, he said. But it was something of a two-way street as well — as Phelps' primary training partner for speed work, Brady pushed and "made him work for it."
Brady watched from afar, but with particular insight, the brouhaha over swimmer Tyler Clary's recent takedown of Phelps. Like most, Brady, who trained with both swimmers at Michigan, was baffled that Clary could tell a columnist at his hometown paper, The Press-Enterprise of Riverside, Calif., that Phelps didn't work very hard and could have accomplished so much more.
Still Brady, who retired from swimming after the Omaha trials, said he could see what was behind the remarks.
"I think it was probably frustration," Brady said. "I don't think it's wrong for Tyler to think he works harder than Michael. Then you mix in not being able to beat him, and the frustration boils over."
The incident, for which Clary has apologized, provided a window into what it's been like to swim at an elite level during an era dominated by Phelps. He has long said that one of his goals is to elevate the sport beyond the once-every-four-years spotlight that it has enjoyed in the past, and he has succeeded in large part.
Swimmers marvel at how much attention they now draw — the TV coverage of not just the Olympic races, but the Grand Prix series and the qualifying trials in Omaha as well. The trials even got the nightly Bob Costas treatment this year. Crowds have swelled, in numbers and enthusiasm — at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where the newly selected Olympic swim team held a training camp before heading across the Atlantic, an announcement that practice would be open one morning drew hundreds to line before dawn, in the rain, to make sure they got a seat.
His biggest rival
This year, swim fans have a particularly engaging reality show to follow, their very own Amazing Races, featuring the rivalry of Phelps and Lochte.
Lochte offers the new face that magazine art directors were hungry for after two Olympic cycles of all Phelps all the time. If you could never tell Men's Journal fromMen's Healthapart on the newsstand, this month didn't help with both featuring the Florida swimmer with the surfer-dude affect.
They are mostly friendly rivals, often teaming up after hours during meets for hotel room games of spades, usually against sprinters Cullen Jones and Ricky Berens. In cards as in the pool, their equally competitive but differing styles come out, Berens said.
"Ryan doesn't think at all," he said, "and Michael overthinks."
Lochte is coming off of a series of wins in international competitions over Phelps, who admittedly lost his focus and drive in the wake of the Beijing Games. But Phelps bested him at the trials, beating him in all but one final, making their two rematches in London, in the 400- and 200-IMs, can't-miss events.
But if Lochte poses a threat to Phelps' supremacy, he seems to also have energized him. There is a sense that Phelps, whether by personality or his status as head and shoulders above the rest of the pack, might feel the loneliness of being on top and relishes some company, even in the form of a rival, up there.
Neither is much for trash-talking. The closest Lochte gets is saying London is "his" time, Phelps won't even go that far — and, in fact, hardly needs to.
"Michael doesn't need to say anything," Krayzelberg said. "They know they're racing the best swimmer in the world."
Phelps will indicate, though, that he thinks Lochte made a strategic misstep in the trials by swimming three races in a single day, the dreaded triple that Phelps himself will avoid in London. Although he emerged from trials on track to swim the same eight events in London that he swept in Beijing, he dropped one race, the 200-free, in favor of more rest time between the grueling 400 IM on the first day of competition and the high-profile 4x100-meter free relay on the second.
While a concession to age and, in his post-Beijing funk, a later start to preparing for London, the decision lifts the onus of Phelps having to compete against himself, or rather, his greatest-hits album of 2008. Rather than having to match his younger self, whatever he accomplishes in London has a better chance of being judged on its own.
But what Phelps wants to do in London remains something of a mystery. If the 2004 and 2008 Games were about chasing, and ultimately surpassing, Mark Spitz' record of seven gold medals in a single Olympics, his current goals are less easily quantified, at least for public consumption.
He will allow that he is motivated by firsts. He could, for example, become the first male swimmer to earn gold in the same event in three Olympics by winning his first event, the 400 IM. And given that he'll have two more chances to do that, he conceivably could three-peat the three-peat.
And by winning just three more medals, of any color, he could supplant Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina's record of 18 to become the most decorated Olympian ever.
Given his performances this past season, both goals seem in reach, although the ever-cautious Phelps would say that in any competition, it's a matter of who shows up and delivers.
By now, he has sweated all of the details, studying videos of his races to find ways of shaving a fraction of a second off a turn, or buying one with a faster start. He has swum with his goggles blackened out, to make sure he can swim through darkness — which of course is what happened in the 200-meter butterfly in Beijing, when water flooded in and blinded him during the final laps.
Even when he's not swimming, he's working, or at least, his body is working: he wears a compression suit to help his body recover. At home in Baltimore, he has slept in a hyperbaric chamber to make his lungs work as hard as if he were at 10,000 feet in altitude.
Still, the Phelps of today is less the single-minded Phelps of the past; they are in fact "like two different people," his coach Bowman said.
"One was like a machine — well, half-man, half-machine," Bowman said earlier this year, "and one is like a man."
The machine didn't take a single day off from the pool between the ages of 13 and 18, a glutton for the kind of punishing workouts that produced his record gold medal haul and shattered world records right and left. The man is the one who after 2008 blew off practices for the golf course or the poker table and left him newly vulnerable to the Lochtes of the world.
The hard-driving Bowman jokes that he liked the machine better. But even he views these final Games as not so much for the record books — Phelps has already filled more than his share of pages — but for the swimmer himself.
"He has worked so hard," Bowman says of the years of training that have taken Phelps to this final Olympics. "I'd like him to just enjoy it more."