Michael Phelps needs three medals at London 2012 to surpass Larisa Latynina’s Olympic record of 18 set between 1956 and 1964. Photograph: Joe Klamar/AFP
The laid-back American swimmer says that the passion is back as he bids to become the most decorated Olympian of all time by winning three medals at London 2012 to surpass Larisa Latynina
He is, after all, already the greatest swimmer in history, of that there can be no statistical doubt. Eight of his 16 Olympic medals came in an adrenaline gold rush in Beijing four years ago, although life has been much tougher since. Preparations for his farewell Olympics have hardly been smooth. Phelps’s American team-mate and rival Tyler Clary – making his Olympic debut in London, but not shy of an opinion – started the most recent ruckus with a remark to his local paper in California that Phelps, who trains up to five hours a day, seven days a week, was, well, lazy.
The concept of -as-fun is alien to anyone who has subjected themselves to the torture of getting ready for serious competition, but Phelps, clearly, is trying to calm the hype building inexorably around him. “Once I hang my suit up, I want to be able to look back and say I’ve done everything I could in my career and, whether that’s having 50 gold medals or having 16 total medals, if I can say I did all I wanted, I think that’s all that matters.”
He has been like this all his life, often against the tide, seldom concerned about the expectations of others, confident in his talent to deliver when it matters most. In events below the glamour of the Olympics, he has not always looked invincible, especially for the past couple of years. He has rivals everywhere. Ryan Lochte, who beat him by 0.35sec in the 200m freestyle at last year’s world championships, to win gold in 1min 44.44sec, for instance. This year it was tough, too. In the Charlotte Grand Prix, ’s Wu Peng beat him into second place in the 200m butterfly. More worryingly, Phelps swam 1:56.8, more than five seconds outside his world record at the 2009 world championships in Rome. The day before, he finished second in the 200m freestyle.
“This is not the Olympics,” he said then, unflustered as ever. “These are little quizzes.” He got his together to qualify, but he is getting on for a swimmer and arrives in London looking vulnerable.