Michael Phelps
Credit: Donald Miralle / Getty Images
At the Olympic center dining hall with Phelps, I can't help notice a group of stunning blondes at the next table. They're UCLA swimmers who have come here to train, and I'd seen them at the pool coyly circling Phelps, watching him out of the corners of their eyes. When I mention this to him, he just shrugs, oblivious. He had a girlfriend in Michigan whom he's since stopped dating and an English bulldog named Herman that he's crazy about but doesn't get to see all that much. He spends two to five hours in a pool each day, more hours eating and napping after workouts, and often hits the road for the A-list sponsors (Speedo, Visa, PowerBar, among others) that help put his annual income in the seven figures. "If I want to leave a legacy behind for my sport," he says, "this is just what I have to do."

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."