DETROIT (Reuters) - For nine days next month the futuristic Water Cube will be the focus of the Beijing Games as spectators and a worldwide television audience count down Michael Phelps’s bid to win a record eight gold medals.
The American swimmer will come under the type of crushing scrutiny only a very few athletes, such as golfer Tiger Woods or Formula One champion Michael Schumacher, have experienced.
Four years ago at the Athens Olympics, Phelps got a taste of the pressure that awaits when his assault on Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals at a single Games ended with number six.
While the mission remains unchanged, expectations have grown over four years of mounting hype.
Even so, the 23-year-old Phelps believes he is now better prepared to tackle the challenge and will have an army of handlers, U.S. sports officials and perhaps even bodyguards to ensure distractions are kept to a minimum.
“Last time I was a deer in the headlights, I had never gotten that much attention from the media,” said Phelps at the U.S. trials. “I’m more relaxed now than I was in 2004.
“Going through everything in the last four years it’s helped me prepare better for the Games coming up.
“I think I am more relaxed now than I was four years ago. The more relaxed I am, the better I am.
“When I walk into a final like here or the Olympic Games I walk in very focused. I don’t mess around, I don’t joke around, my mind is focused on job I have to do.
“It’s just easy for me to do that, I don’t know why. It’s just easy for me to focus on the race and the job.”
Phelps is known for his laser-like focus and utter disdain for losing.
A creature of habit, he goes through a pre-race routine honed from more than a decade of competition.
Before each race, he arrives at the pool at the same time, does the same stretches in the same order and, uniquely, steps on to the starting blocks from the left side.
“I noticed the first time I saw him swim, I think he was 10, it was just apparent he was just going to do whatever it took. When he swam you could see that kind of intensity,” said Phelps’s long-time coach Bob Bowman.
Bowman has charted the swimmer’s rise to the top, assuming the role of father figure for Phelps, who was raised by his mother Debbie after his parents divorced when he was young.
The white-haired coach owns several thoroughbred race horses, including one named Vanderkaay, after Phelps’s Club Wolverine team mate Peter Vanderkaay, which won a Triple Crown prep race at Laurel Park earlier this year.
Bowman has yet to name a horse after Phelps, saying there would be too much pressure on the horse to win.
“I guess he saw something in me at a young age...and really has never given up on me through good times and bad,” said Phelps. “He has helped me grow from an 11-year-old swimmer who didn’t really know what he is doing to the person I am today.
“I’ve been able to accomplish my lifetime dreams and goals. I always wanted to be an Olympic gold medalist, a professional athlete, a world-record holder and Bob has taken me to all of those.
“We’re more than athlete/coach, we’re friends. We’re able to be very close and be there for each other. The relationship we have is the best part about it.”
Bowman taught Phelps how do drive and was their to help him with his tie when he went to his first school dance.
He stood by Phelps when the swimmer was charged with drunk driving shortly after the Athens Olympics and calmed him when a broken wrist last November looked like it might threaten his dreams.
“When he went to his first dance in school at 13 I let him leave practice about 15 minutes early,” recalled Bowman. “He didn’t even know how to tie a tie.
“I told him I would help him and he came with the tie and when I went to put it on, I noticed he had buttoned his shirt one off.
“I think moments like that have helped us go on for so long.
“I have a picture of Michael and I that was taken in Indianapolis just minutes after he made the Olympic team in 2000.
“And if you can see the look on his face, it is so purely happy, I keep it on desk and every time I’m discouraged or frustrated I look at that picture and it makes me happy.”
Phelps has few interests outside swimming. His ambition simply is to become the greatest swimmer the world has ever seen.
“I don’t think anything is too high,” said Phelps. “If you think about doing the unthinkable you can.
“The sky is the limit. That’s one thing I have learned from Bob, anything is possible. I set very high goals for myself and I work hard to get there.”
Editing by Clare Fallon