It was a rare hiccup in a four-year plan that relied heavily on Phelps's uncommon drive and maturity. Athletically, Phelps is a freak, with what 1984 gold medalist Rowdy Gaines calls "the perfect body for swimming: long arms, big hands and feet, short legs yet long torso," and strokes that are nearly flawless. "It's obvious he's a technical wizard," says Spitz.
On top of that, Phelps finds motivation at every turn. Since last year's worlds he has kept on his bedroom wall a photograph of U.S. rival Ian Crocker, who beat him in the 100-fly final and took away his world record. When Thorpe's coach suggested last winter that Phelps was incapable of matching Spitz's seven golds (an opinion Thorpe has since seconded), Phelps says, "It fired me up." Phelps is also fueled by slights from the past. Nearly two years ago a young man approached him at a meet and congratulated him on his accomplishments, adding, "Do you remember me? I used to swim against you?" In fact, he was one of the 13-year-olds who used to make fun of Phelps's big ears and skinny body.
"Sorry," Phelps said, "I don't remember you." Later he told Hilary, "Of course I remember him. But the way he treated me, there's no way I was going to give him the satisfaction."
Phelps and Bowman have an almost symbiotic relationship. (After the Olympics, Phelps will move to Ann Arbor, Mich., where Bowman was hired in April to be the Wolverines' coach.) For nearly three years following Sydney, Bowman put Phelps through long-distance training, sometimes more than 12 miles a day. This year the load has lessened slightly, with greater emphasis on quality and stroke adjustment. The results have been promising. During a mid-June training session in Colorado Springs, Phelps swam five 200-meter frees with minimal rest, the last in a searing 1:51.9, nearly three seconds faster than usual for a similar workout, despite the thin air. At the trials—a meet for which he didn't fully rest or taper—he set one world record (in the 400 IM) and won four of the six events in which he qualified (finishing second only to Peirsol and Crocker). "You have to be prepared to break the world record every time you swim against him," says Australia's Justin Norris, who expects to face Phelps in both IMs and the 200 butterfly in Athens.
"Everything I've done for two years has pointed toward this summer," says Phelps as he stands by the side of the pool in Baltimore, bathed in twilight. In May the pool was drained for a black-tie dinner at which Phelps was the guest of honor. Now he wears a gray hoodie over sopping hair, a weary teenager with big dreams. Athens beckons, and with it a place in Olympic history, with one gold medal or many more.