COLUMBUS, Ohio — After years of daily workouts, the pool beckons once again for Michael Phelps.
No longer is he muddling through a post-Beijing depression, trying to figure out where he was headed after capturing eight gold medals in 2008, bumping his total take to 14 golds.
Knowing that the end of his career is rapidly approaching, Phelps relishes swimming and competing.
“For me, right now, there are still things I want to accomplish in the sport. I know that I’m not going to have this opportunity for too much longer. So I might as well give it one more shot, one more go at it, and have fun,” he said Thursday. “Over the last three years, I haven’t had fun doing it. But ever since World Championships, I’ve been having fun. That’s the best thing for me to be able to perform at my best. If I’m having fun, then it’s easy.”
His coach, Bob Bowman, readily concedes that Phelps lost his focus after taking the Beijing Olympics by storm.
“He struggled with that, really, for a couple of years,” Bowman said.
But suddenly, after 11 years as a pro and 15 years with Bowman, he’s regained his passion for the sport.
He says he won’t be guided by what anybody else thinks. He’s not concerned about his legacy, either. He won’t be upset if he doesn’t win eight more golds in London this summer. He’s reaching for something higher.
“After I retire, I want to be able to look back and put all the records, put all the medals, put everything aside,” he said. “As long as I can look back on my career and say I’ve done everything that I’ve wanted to do, none of the rest matters. Whatever anybody else says, I don’t care. As long as I’m satisfied with everything I’ve done, I consider my career a success.”
By almost any yardstick, it already is among the greatest careers imaginable. One thing he’s certain, he won’t stretch himself to the limits in order to meet parameters others might set for him.
“I don’t think I’ll do eight (events) again,” he said of his plans for the London Olympics in late July. “I don’t know if my body could handle it again. To be in that kind of shape, that was obviously the best shape of my life. That was the first time I’ve ever actually really felt broken down and tired at a swim meet. I remember I was going into the 100 fly semifinal and remember after that, talking to Bob and being like, ‘I’ve got nothing left. I’m done.’ That’s never happened to me at a swim meet before.”
Phelps, who will turn 27 shortly before heading to this summer’s Games, won’t disclose how many events he plans to swim in London. But it’s clear that he intends to be more selective, saving himself for the events he feels he has the best shot of winning.
Bowman and Phelps have just spent three weeks in Colorado Springs, Colo., working out at altitude. Both were surprised at how fast Phelps’ times were and at how good he feels. Phelps is competing in the Columbus Grand Prix event this week at Ohio State — an odd scene for the Michigan grad.
“I keep saying, ‘What’s with all the red that people are wearing?'” he said with a grin, referring to all the scarlet sweats and T-shirts around the Ohio State pool.
The fact that London is Phelps’ last Olympics adds some motivation and incentive — not that he really needed any.
“One of the things that Michael has going for him is that he’s already done something nobody’s ever done, probably won’t do again,” Bowman said of the eight golds in one Olympics and 14 for his career. “Anything he does in London is going to be gravy — that’s the way we approach this.”
Phelps joked that he and his coach have a plan in mind but weren’t going to tell anyone.
“I’m not going to tell you what that is. So don’t ask,” he said with a laugh. “Don’t waste the time, don’t waste the question.”
The gold medals made Phelps a celebrity and pitchman known around the globe. An outgoing person, he reveled in that attention at first. But now he’s become more private. He is more careful in public than before.
“(There’s been) ups and downs. I’ve had the best times of my life, I’ve had the worst times of my life,” he said. “But everything has been a great experience. I’ve had learning experiences along the way that have changed my life. And I wouldn’t trade anything for the world.”