"Baltimore has always had a complex because it's not Washington or New York. It's not even Philadelphia," says Pulitzer Prize--winning writer Richard Ben Cramer, who cut his teeth as a reporter at the Sun. "The fans are used to getting snubbed—the Colts left, the Bullets left. A guy like Phelps could have gone Hollywood, but instead he's coming back. People like that. The most important thing to a Baltimore sports fan is fidelity."
"It's a blue-collar, working-class town, so most of the sports heroes are not flashy guys," says Academy Award--winning director Barry Levinson, who has set four of his films in his native Baltimore, including the seminal coming-of-age movie Diner. (He also owns a small piece of the Orioles.) "Johnny U, Ripken, Brooks Robinson—they were dedicated to the craft, not flamboyant. They just got it done. Phelps is that kind of athlete. Forget the medals. What people respect about him is that he just shows up every day and does the work. That's what Baltimore is all about."
EMERGING FROM the water after the photo shoot for this story, at the New York Athletic Club in late November, Phelps said with a smile, "That's the most time I've spent in a pool since Beijing." He meant it, too.
"We were talking before the shoot," said Debbie, "and Michael said, 'I hope they don't make me take my shirt off because I've lost my six-pack. I'm getting fat.' I said, 'Michael, don't talk to me about fat—you still have no butt!'"
The long sabbatical after the Olympics was designed to allow Phelps to have some fun and build his brand, but he also needed to decompress from the crushing pressure of Beijing. "For six years he had been living with the quest for eight golds," says Bowman. "We're both like ER nurses in that we thrive on the stress, but it wasn't until Beijing was over that I think we both realized what a weight that was. I think we could both finally breathe again."
The plan has always been for Phelps to resume training in January, but, he says, "I'm starting to get a little antsy."
"He's already asked me how long it will take to get back to his top level, which is a good sign," says Bowman. "The formula is that it takes two days in the pool for every day you miss. So we're looking at about six months to get back to where he was."
That schedule would have Phelps peaking for the world championships, July 18 through Aug. 2 in Rome. Actually, most of the pressure to be ready for the worlds is coming from Debbie. "My mom has already told me I have to make the team because she wants to go to Rome," says Phelps, rolling his eyes. "I told her I would just send her there on a vacation, but she was like, 'Watching you swim is always part of my vacation.' So now I have to get back in shape."
Ask him if he's afraid that he's lost his edge, and the usually laconic Phelps sits up straight, looks you in the eye and says with some steel in his voice, "When I have to turn the switch back on, I know I can. All I have to do is put my mind to something and that's it, it's done."
If Phelps's dedication is a given in the long run-up to the 2012 Games, there is still some uncertainty about what events he will swim in London. Just as Tiger Woods has won the Masters with three different golf swings, Phelps feels compelled to tinker just to make sure he remains fully engaged. He and Bowman are in agreement that he will drop one race from his Beijing program—the 400 IM, even though Phelps set the world record. He will continue swimming the 200 freestyle and will add a new event, the 100 free. In the months to come Phelps and Bowman will decide between the 100 butterfly or 100 back, and the 200 back or 200 IM, and whether to continue with the arduous 200 butterfly. Throw in the three relays, and Phelps should be chasing at least seven more golds in London, although he likes to needle Bowman that he may turn himself into a sprinter so he can add the 50 free, just for the heck of it.