Except for one thing: This is the finals of the 100 breaststroke.
It's Phelps's Achilles' heel; an event he never competes in. And next to him, in lane 5, is U.S. Olympian Mark Gangloff, whose best event happens to be, well, this one. Like all sports, swimming has its unwritten rules. Here's one: You can win the 100 breaststroke or the 100 freestyle (which Phelps had done earlier in the meet), but you can't win them both. In elite competition the same person has never come close to taking these two events, and for good reason. Of the four strokes—butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle—breaststroke is the bastard child. It's lateral where the others are linear, a specialist's choreography of power legs, tricky timing and subtle hand position. Breaststrokers and sprint freestylers have about as much in common as kangaroos and leopards.
Phelps bends into his start. He's 6'4" and has size-14 feet that are so flexible, his toes actually wrap around the edges of the block. The starter bleeps, and the field explodes; when Phelps surfaces, he's almost at the opposite wall.
His race is over in 53.41 seconds, Phelps touched out by Gangloff's 53.09. At poolside a pale-haired, midsized man wearing a navy polo shirt and wire-rimmed glasses stands with arms crossed. His face bears no emotion; he's simply watching so hard you can hear the gears whirring. This is Bob Bowman, 43, Phelps's coach. As Phelps vaults from the water and heads to the warm-down pool, Bowman's mouth curls into a Cheshire cat smile. Yes, his athlete lost a race. But everything's relative. Tonight, by almost beating one of the world's best breaststrokers, Phelps has served notice that unlike any other swimmer in history, he no longer has a weak stroke.
"That's one of the most impressive things I've ever seen him do," Bowman says, looking at the clock.
II. THE SPORT
Picture the winter predawn, sometime in January. Somewhere in the East, like Baltimore (where Phelps began his career) or Ann Arbor, Mich. (where he trains now). It's cold, for one thing. And dark. And when the alarm clock shrieks its owner awake at 5 a.m., his bed has never felt so warm. For swimmers, nothing epitomizes their sport so much as the feeling of diving into frigid water before sunrise. The serious ones do it most mornings of their careers. Later in the day, they're back for another two or three hours. Anything else—school, what passes for a social life—is arranged around these workouts.
For nonswimmers, the idea of spending that much time going back and forth, staring at the black line on the bottom of the pool as the chlorine eats into your skin, is the definition of hellish monotony. But the swimmers aren't bored.
It's not that they're unfamiliar with the concept of repetition. Rather, it's that they can swim or kick or pull their laps; they can do it with paddles, fins, buoys, weights or surgical tubing; over any distance, on any interval and in any combination of the above. And there are four strokes to think about, each as technical as dressage—and that's before they consider starts and turns, where the closest races are decided. ("Michael basically lost the 200 free in Athens on turns," Bowman says.) The fine-tuning is endless. "Right now I'm working on fixing my head position in freestyle," Phelps says. "It's too high. Even after 11 years, I have never swum it right. I'm still working on little things that are going to make a huge difference."
III. THE COACH