He’s Baaack: Inside the Mind of Michael Phelps

He's already the greatest Olympian of all time. In London he could be come the most decorated one

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Victoria Will / AP

Swimmer Michael Phelps poses for a portrait at the Olympic Media Summit, Sunday, May 13, 2012, in Dallas.

What do you do after you make Olympic history?

It’s not a problem too many Olympic athletes, not to mention many non-Olympians, ever have to worry about. But if you’re Michael Phelps, it’s a very real, and very serious dilemma. How do you top winning a record-setting eight gold medals at the Games, of stringing along the emotions of the entire world over a nail-biting nine days of dramatic, often hair’s breadth wins? What do you do with the single-minded focus that drove you, almost on auto-pilot, for more than a decade to swim mile after mile in the pool? How do you fill the days that suddenly, minus all those hours of training, yawn wide open like both a taunt and a temptation.

You do what any other media sensation does in the digital era. You find yourself plastered across fan sites on the Internet. You get invited to pose half-naked with a supermodel. And you find yourself less and less interested in the one thing that had consumed you for so long — swimming.

(MORE: Michael Phelps Has A Problem)

“After 2008, I just didn’t want to do it,” Phelps told reporters at the United States Olympic Committee Media Summit in Dallas, Tex. “I knew deep down inside I wanted to, but I didn’t want to put in the work. There were times I wouldn’t come to practice, because it didn’t excite me. It wasn’t interesting. I was kind of going through the motions.”

Perfectly understandable. After all, to achieve his goal of becoming the first Olympic swimmer to beat Mark Spitz’s record of seven Olympic golds in one Games, swimming had been Phelps’ all-consuming passion for more than eight years. After those memorable days in Beijing, the spark that had taken decades to light and nurture was extinguished in an instant.

Phelps’ coach could only watch as the fuel that had propelled his star student ran dry. Even his sure-fire method for motivating Phelps, by goading him on with barbs or put-downs from competitors, no longer held the same sting. Then the unimaginable happened. Phelps got beaten in the pool. In 2011, teammate and Ryan Lochte outswam him in two events at the world championships, and bested Phelps’ world record in one race, the 200 IM.

“It wasn’t fun. I put myself in that spot, I put myself in the spot where I was not swimming the times I wanted, and he was just kind of rolling over me,” Phelps says of Lochte’s emergence. “It wasn’t fun to be on that end, and was something very motivating for me. Last year I kind of woke up a little more and [losing] got to me a little bit more. In 2010, I was kind of like, whatever. Last year, I felt, ‘This is so frustrating.’ It was not a fun feeling any more; it super frustrated me.”

A frustrated Phelps is a driven Phelps, and that means a Phelps that may make history again in London. This time, he’s not trying to surpass himself in the medal count, but a Russian gymnast named Larissa Latynina, who collected 18 Olympic medals during her career. With three more medals in London, Phelps would become the most decorated Olympic athlete in history.

(PHOTOS: Michael Phelps Eight Golds in Beijing)

A worthy goal, and one that seems like reasonable inspiration to get back into the pool to train. But if that’s the reason he’s returning for his fifth Olympics, Phelps won’t say. Always one to hold his goals close to his chest, he’ll only say that his inspiration for London is personal. “I have goals that I want to achieve, things I want do for myself,” he says. “I think sometimes I guess you see records, say you want to get there and use that as motivation. In a way, it’s kind of cool if there is a possibility to rewrite history and be up there with the greats of Olympic history. But one thing going into this year, I have goals I want to accomplish. I know it won’t be eight medals again. I’m going out there to try and accomplish things I have in my mind and in my heart. If I can do that, and I can have fun, that’s all that matters to me.”

All that Phelps will say about those goals is that on occasion, he and Bowman have disagreed on how realistic they are. “There have been a couple of times when I wanted to re-evaluate them,” he says. “Probably to make them easier, just because I didn’t want to put the work in. Bob talked me into keeping it, and challenging myself. I think goals should never be easy, they should force you to work, even if they are uncomfortable at the time. It’s how it’s always been in my career, and how I want to finish my career.”

But why the secrecy? Phelps and Bowman have always maintained a tight hold on what they expect out of each event; “I don’t know that we need to give the competition any more ammunition than they already have,” says Bowman.

Whatever Phelps is planning for London, it will be his last appearance as an athlete at the Games. “This is my 20th year in the sport. I’ve known swimming and that’s it. I don’t want to swim past age 30; if I continue after this Olympics, and come back in 2016, I’ll be 31. I’m looking forward to being able to see the other side of the fence.” If these indeed are his last swims, they will be fueled by the old passion that had slipped away after Beijing. The comeback, he says, hasn’t been easy, given the lackadaisical training he maintained for nearly two and a half years.

Prior to the Olympic Trials to determine the US swim team for London, Phelps and Bowman are headed to Colorado Springs, where he will train at altitude for several weeks. “I will do everything I can to try to fight back, and hopefully I didn’t get too far behind to make up some of the ground Ryan pulled off. Once I hang my suit up, I want to look back and say I’ve done everything I can in my career. Whether that’s having 50 gold medals, or having 16 total medals, if I can say I’ve done everything I wanted, that’s all that matters.”

MORE: Michael Phelps Profile, August 2004