With just over a year to go until the Olympics, it's time for Michael Phelps to get busy again.
The world's greatest swimmer scaled down his training over the summer, allowing him to take a much-needed break from the pool.
But he'll swim a staggering 10 events over five days at this week's U.S. National Championships, a not-so-subtle reminder of what lies on the road to Beijing: grueling work, ever-increasing hype and enormous expectations.
"If I can do that, who knows what else I can do?" Phelps said, a tantalizing statement from someone who's already done so much.
During the nationals, which begin Tuesday at the Indiana University Natatorium, he's scheduled to compete in the 200-meter breaststroke, the 100 and 200 backstroke, the 100 butterfly, the 200 individual medley, the 200 and 400 freestyle, plus all three relays.
"For me, this is my last big year to do something really big in the sport," Phelps said. "I know how important it is for me to be as prepared as I can for next year. I'd rather be able to say I gave it everything I could instead of five years down the road saying to myself, 'I wish I could have changed this, I wish I could have changed that.'"
He sounds as if he hasn't done anything, which might just explain his enduring success in a sport that can burn out its brightest stars.
Phelps seemed to be at his peak in 2004, when he won eight medals &
six of them gold &
at the Athens Olympics. But at this year's world championships in Australia, he topped himself with seven golds.
While Phelps Down Under was largely overlooked in his home country &
he was swimming on the other side of the world during March Madness, often while most of America was sleeping &
it might have been the most impressive performance in swimming history.
He took part in five world records, a couple of them by such wide margins that Phelps drove for the wall with his entire body ahead of a superimposed line used in television coverage to chart one's progress against the previous mark.
If not for a mistake by a teammate in the 400 medley relay &
Ian Crocker dove in too early during the preliminaries of an event the Americans were heavily favored to win &
Phelps surely would have left Melbourne with eight gold medals, a hugely symbolic number.
Mark Spitz won a record seven golds at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Phelps came up just short of that mark in Athens, but he intends to take another crack at it in Beijing.
Phelps showed up for a training session Monday sporting a mustache and a shaggy head of hair, tucked under a Detroit Tigers cap that was sitting sideways on his head. He intends to shave off the mustache before he swims, but he'll keep the long hair for this meet, as if giving himself a sense that he can go faster down the road when he totally shaves down.
Knowing what lies ahead, Bowman cut back on his star pupil's training schedule and put less emphasis on this meet than he did in previous years. Phelps has 32 national titles, ranking fifth on a career list that is led by Tracy Caulkins with 48.
"This is just kind of to establish our starting point for next year," Bowman said. "For Michael, it's not just the pressure of the training and the racing &
it's the scrutiny of 24-7 living in a fishbowl for a whole year. I wanted to give him a little bit of time where he had a little bit of flexibility before he gets into ... the lockdown. After this, it's pretty much into the lockdown."
Phelps isn't the only top swimmer who'll be trying out some different events at nationals. World record holder Brendan Hansen has added the 200 medley to his strongest races, the 100 and 200 breaststroke.
"There's only so much breaststroke you can do before you kind of burn yourself out with that stroke," Hansen said. "I just wanted to bring another event in where I didn't have the expectation to break the world record. It brought me back to just racing."
Katie Hoff, who figures to be one of the biggest female stars in Beijing, won't swim the 400 medley after setting a world record in that event at Melbourne. She's added the 200 back and 800 free, two races she's never attempted before at nationals.
"I decided to drop the 400 IM just for this meet. I've sort of accomplished everything I wanted to this year in that," Hoff said. "I come into every meet trying to get a best time and improve, but it definitely takes a little bit of pressure off knowing this is not a selection meet or the biggest meet of the year."
While bigger meets are still to come over the next year, capped off by the biggest one of all, U.S. men's coach Eddie Reese views nationals as an important step in identifying the up-and-comers who will be the surprises of 2008.
"This," he said, "is where they first start emerging out of the woodwork."
Phelps a busy man at U.S. Nationals