Kovacevic: Will Phelps swim to — or from — glory?

| Monday, May 14, 2012, 1:11 a.m.


Come July 27, when the Olympic torch is lit in London, he'll once again be our nation's most celebrated athlete. Even though he's already won so much and has so little left to prove. Even though he speaks wistfully of retiring once it's done. Even though his image was soiled by a photo of him puffing on a marijuana pipe two years ago. And, in a special put-off to Pittsburghers, even though his main source of motivation is Ray Lewis.

Yeah, that Ray Lewis.

Hey, Michael Phelps is Baltimore to the bone.

But we as Americans won't turn away. We never do.

We love to watch a Mario Lemieux, a Michael Jordan, a Tiger Woods, an Usain Bolt and now maybe a Josh Hamilton. We love it when truly special athletes ascend to new thresholds. Sure, we see their flaws, but we still won't turn away.

Neither can Phelps.

Or so it would appear.

From the tone he struck in meeting Sunday at the U.S. Olympic Media Summit at the Hilton Anatole, you'd almost get the idea he was looking forward to the London Games he already has declared will be his last.

That's almost.

“I want to do this. It's fun being in the pool again,” Phelps insisted to a room of 300 reporters. “It's not like they had to pull me by the hair kicking and screaming to come back.”

I did stop well short of saying he sounded thrilled, right?

It's progress.

Rest assured, this will be nothing like Phelps the wunderkind in Sydney. It won't be like his breakthrough in Athens, either. I covered those Games and marveled even more at how the world embraced him than what was being embraced. And London, of course, has no chance of matching Beijing, where Phelps set an unthinkable goal of eight gold medals and magically touched'em all. It was one of the greatest feats in the history of organized sport.

This isn't the same time, isn't the same Phelps. Whether it's because he's already got those 16 medals, he's already made $40 million through endorsements or he's trying to reclaim a childhood mostly spent underwater, the passion for swimming all but left him after Beijing.

“I didn't have the motivation, and I didn't put in the work, through '09 and the next year,” Phelps said. “I didn't know if I wanted to compete anymore.”

So he branched out into abject laziness. He skipped training sessions three months at a time. He partied like a frat boy. He fell badly out of shape.

“Let's just say I was getting ready for London well before Michael was,” Phelps' longtime coach, Bob Bowman, said while seated next to his swimmer on stage. “I was very frustrated for a couple years there.”

That began to change in late 2010, albeit without drama. Phelps often cites his admiration of Lewis' 16-year NFL career and the odd chat with Lewis for refueling his fire, but the two don't talk that much.

“It wasn't one thing. I just probably needed to go through all this myself, to experience it,” Phelps said. He laughed and added, “I probably wouldn't have done it if I knew it'd be this hard to get back.”

It's been tough, all right. Phelps took four golds at swimming's world championships last year, but Ryan Lochte, an American who recently declared that London is “my time,” bested him with five. China's Wu Peng also has beaten Phelps twice in the past year.

Phelps, like Lochte, will be 27 for opening ceremonies. He no longer can rely solely on his innate talent and freakishly prototype swimmer's build. He has to work. He has to care.

And mean it.

Just observing Phelps' body language yesterday, slumped back and devil-may-care, and listening to him pine for the days when he's out of the pool for good — “When I say I'm done, I mean I'll be done” — I got the sense that Phelps' greatest challenge will be pushing Phelps.

And maybe that's what's left to prove.

Maybe this will be more like Mario back from retirement, or M.J. back from minor league baseball, or Tiger back from, uh, having his windshield smashed.

Maybe Phelps will sharpen his edge to become the most decorated Olympian ever. He isn't revealing how many events he'll choose but he needs three medals to surpass the 18 of Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina.

“Honestly, I didn't even know about that until someone told me this year,” Phelps said when the topic arose. “Really, I don't know what to say about that.”

Like I said, maybe.

Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at dkovacevic@tribweb.com.

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