May 13, 2011

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A throwback Orioles cap, worn backward, didn't hide Michael Phelps' latest battle scar, a half-inch reminder above his right eye.

"I got in a fight with myself," he joked. "I lost."

Phelps is dealing with defeat at the hands of others, too. The 14-time Olympic gold medalist has won 10 out of 15 races this year going into this weekend's Charlotte UltraSwim.

Those five losses -- including one that snapped a nine-year winning streak -- sounded alarms.

The losses comes in the wake of a similarly less-than-perfect 2010, when Phelps was merely the world's second-best in the water. Rival Ryan Lochte became the sport's new alpha male, but Phelps can take back that title back at July's world championships. Phelps says he's motivated by new, yet unspecified, smack talk and has acknowledged he feels other swimmers aren't in awe of him like before.

At the most recent Grand Prix meet in April, Phelps lost a 200-meter butterfly for the first time since 2002, when he was 17. He didn't even make the podium; Phelps touched fourth.

"I felt something at 150 [meters]," Phelps said. "When [swimmers on] both sides were beating me, I was like, 'Uh oh, this isn't good.' I tried to kick it into gear, but I had nothing in the tank."

That extra reserve had always been there before, especially at the biggest meets, including the 100 butterfly at both the 2004 and 2008 Olympics (where he won with magical touches) and the 200 free at the Athens Games (where he just about chased down rivals Pieter van den Hoogenband and Ian Thorpe).

But last April, in an ordinary race, Phelps couldn't find it.

"It was an uncomfortable feeling," Phelps said, an "eye-opener" and a "wake-up call."

Phelps spent the last month trying to rid himself of that feeling in training in Baltimore, where he's based with longtime coach Bob Bowman. Bowman no longer demands the same intense workouts that Phelps did prior to the Athens and Beijing Games.

"I think there were times over the last two years where I was probably trying to do the bare minimum, and it shows," Phelps said.

"Beyond the bare minimum," corrected Bowman, standing at Phelps' side, exchanging eye rolls with his pupil upon every admission of inadequacy.

The previous two years, Phelps essentially debuted his season in Charlotte. But he's already got three long-course meets under his belt this season. Learning from those losses, he's swimming just three events this weekend. He is entered in the 200 fly, 200 free and 200 backstroke. It could serve as a fresh start in the journey to July's world championships in Shanghai, China.

"I think you'll see a more focused Michael," said Lochte, slated for six races in Charlotte. "You'll definitely see a new swimmer this summer."

New, but not too different. Phelps' world championships schedule is just one event shy of his previous Olympic program (gone is the exhausting 400 individual medley). He plans on seven total events (four individuals, three relays) in eight days, and if all goes well, he may do the same at the 2012 Olympics.

Phelps knows the storylines at stake in London, his fourth and likely final Games. With three medals, he would become the most decorated Olympian ever with 19, surpassing 1950s and '60s Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina.

Then there are the ripples emanating from Down Under. Thorpe, the king of the pool a decade ago, is coming out of a five-year retirement. Aussie outlets purported a potential Phelps trip to Sydney and a pre-Olympic showdown, but that's not happening.

Still, Phelps would enjoy an Olympic encore of the "Race of the Century," the 200 freestyle from the bAthens Games, his only individual Olympic race against Thorpe. Thorpe won it, and Phelps, an underdog, took bronze in a personal-best time.

"After 2004, I wanted to be able to race him in his event again in the 200 free, but I never had that opportunity," Phelps said. "So hopefully we can meet one day again."

Thorpe, 28, is no lock to make the Aussie Olympic team, and acknowledged the improbability of a possible rematch, telling the AFP it will happen "if the Olympic gods strike."

For now and this summer, Phelps won't worry about possible duels with Thorpe. His fight is an inner one.

"I have to see how my body reacts to an event schedule like [worlds]," Phelps said. "I feel like an old man coming out of the pool sometimes. My body doesn't recover like it used to."

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