Phelps, who won eight swimming golds in Beijing to add to the six golds (and two bronzes) he won in Athens in 2004, says he won't swim eight events in London next year. Yet he has set some challenging -- if private -- goals for himself.
"There are things I still want to do," he said before the Santa Clara Grand Prix meet in June. "I wouldn't have come back if I still didn't have things to accomplish."
Since pulling off the unthinkable in Beijing, Phelps has struggled to stay motivated. He missed large chunks of training time in 2009 and 2010, compromising the fitness that has been the foundation of his dominance. One year out from London, he has already shelved the grueling 400 IM, an event in which he has held the world record for the last nine years. The aura of invincibility he once brought to his other events has also developed cracks. At last summer's nationals, rival Ryan Lochte beat him in the 200 IM for the first time. During this spring's Grand Prix season, Phelps lost three straight times in his signature event, the 200 butterfly, ending an unbeaten streak of 60 races that stretched back to 2002.
"I think what Michael has given up in his two years of not doing his super training is that everyone thinks they have a shot now," his coach, Bob Bowman, said. "It's fine; they do."
Yet it would be foolish to count Phelps out of any race he chooses to do in London. While Phelps' performance at this week's World Championships in Shanghai will help determine his 2012 program, it's a good bet he'll swim the 100 fly and the 200 IM, as well as the 200 fly, the 200 free and all three relays.
The competition will be stiff in every event. In the 200 IM, Lochte, the current world record holder, could be the favorite, while 2008 silver medalist Laszlo Cseh of Hungary, Thiago Pereira of Brazil and Tyler Clary of the U.S. will all be pushing to improve their usual also-ran status. The 200 free field will be even more dangerous, especially if Australian superstar Ian Thorpe, who beat Phelps in the event in 2004, makes a successful comeback.
Even without Thorpe, the field will likely feature a murderer's row of Lochte (who beat Phelps on Tuesday in the race), Park Tae-Hwan of Korea, 2009 world champion Paul Biedermann of Germany and French teen phenom Yannick Angel. Waiting for Phelps in the 100 fly should be a highly motivated Milorad Cavic of Serbia, whom he out-touched to win his seventh gold medal in Beijing. The relays? The U.S. might not be favored in any one.
"I think Michael is going to win some events, but I don't know if he can win every event," Bowman said. "His butterfly is almost as good as it has been, and his 200 free is going to be good. I think all his events will be competitive. He just might not be dominant."
While some casual fans will be disappointed if Phelps doesn't sweep his events again, his Olympic legacy is secure regardless.
"If he loses every event, I don't think it really matters," Bowman said. "He's going to be the greatest Olympian ever until somebody wins nine gold medals. Actually, until somebody wins 14. It's not just about one Olympics; it's about his whole body of work. And I think he's just going to add to it in London."