There have been swimmers who dominated a single Games (Spitz in '72, Ian Thorpe in 2000, Phelps himself in '04), but no one has done it a second time, and the pressure on Phelps in 2008 will be severe. Apart from 2004, when he drew raves at the Games and fire for his DUI collar, Phelps has lived beyond the white-hot arc of mass-pop attention in this country, and it is fair to wonder how well he'll bear up once the full-court heat begins. It's a recipe for trouble if he pays it heed, and Phelps will be hard-pressed not to pay heed, for he is eager to represent swimming.
"I want to change my sport, push it up to the point where kids go out for swim team instead of JV hoops," he told me when we first met in Los Angeles. "I want it up at the level it's at in Australia, where guys like Ian Thorpe are giant stars and people jam in to see their meets. That's why I bust it so hard for '08. If I can do in Beijing what I did in Greece, it might just help us put it over the top."
At our last meal together he amends this slightly, saying that what he really hopes to accomplish at the Games is to bring a wave of young kids to the sport.
"Swimming's done so much for me, more than I can give back to it, and I just want them to feel some part of what I feel," Phelps says. "On my crappiest day, when I'm tired or jet-lagged, I jump in that water and just something happens that I can't even put into words. I feel better and stronger, all the soreness goes, and I'm me again, a hundred percent back."