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James Lawton: Michael Phelps reaches final course at London 2012 with renewed appetite for golds

He already has stunning achievement, built over eight years, first in Athens, then Beijing, and now London

Even for a first lord of the sports universe, it is a bold way of defining the last of your ambition. But then maybe Michael Phelps, who is already the owner of 16 Olympic medals, 14 of them gold, is finding the self-promotion of his friend and only serious rival, Ryan Lochte, just a little wearing.

Perhaps he just wanted to explain how the years move you along, how one day's burning need is tomorrow's optional extra.

"It's very hard to compare the feelings I have here with the ones I took to Beijing," said the man from Baltimore, who some time ago elected himself to the inner circle of the world's great sportsmen. "I went to Beijing wanting to conquer everyone and everything, but now [coach] Bob [Bowman] and I are a lot more relaxed.

"This is the closing hour and the question is: how many toppings do I want on my sundae?"

He may have to ask the same question as soon as next Tuesday night, when in slightly less than an hour he will have opportunities to win possibly his second and third gold medals of these Olympics – and a total of 19 medals to carry him past the mark of Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina.

He already has stunning achievement, built over eight years, first in Athens, then Beijing, and now London, where he says he will follow at least to some degree the advice of the old golf star who said that sooner or later everyone has to stop and smell the flowers. He did a little of it yesterday, strolling in the village and at one point noting the extreme tallness of three Russian athletes. It as though he was spotting a rare and exotic phenomenon after spending quite a number of years in a tunnel of his own construction.

"It is very exciting to be back, to be competing at this level for one last time," says the 27-year-old, "but you know it's only other people who keep bringing up the medal count. I never mentioned it in my life – I've never seen what I'm doing in that way. I've always had just one ambition; to swim as fast as I can and I've also known that if you want to be faster than anyone around, well, it takes a lot of work – a lot of concentration.

"These last few days I've been very aware that I'm doing all this for the last time, sitting in the room, trying to keep an edge while watching something like The Wire or some other TV show or watching a movie. It can make you quite emotional and certainly aware that there can be no holding back."

Someone wants to know the difference between a superstar and one who has fought himself into, say, the top 20 competitors of all time across every branch of sport. It is the cue for coach Bowman to begin spelling out the assets that separate a Phelps from all his challengers, including perhaps the increasingly confident – and visible – Lochte.

"You go down the list and you see that Michael has all the basic attributes that go into becoming a great sportsman – and then you look at the most important thing of all. You look at the psychological strength that enables a man to push himself that much harder than anyone else. I don't know any other person who could challenge Michael in that. We trained every day for six years before Athens – and after that we took Sundays off."

There is a little needling of Phelps, you can't help noticing, and the easiest way to do it is, plainly, to bring up the threat of Lochte and the possibility that his rival has timed his run for gold, and ever-rising celebrity and personal sponsorships, to something close to perfection. Lochte is pictured pushing tyres, building his strength – has Phelps not felt the need for some small psychological counter-attacks?

"We all do what we have to," said Phelps with a just a small edge. "I have people putting down on paper things that can help me, boxing, lifting, and I believe everyone needs something a little different. In Beijing everything was perfect – now I need more time to recover. Now I suppose before it is over there will be lots of ice buckets and trying to stuff calories into my body. I had some of that in the Olympic trials but it reminded me that the more races I had, the better I began to feel."

Bowman said that his man has shown "significant" progress since the trials and that reverses against Lochte in that time when the main challenge was to convince himself that he wanted to be back in the heart of the battle can be smoothed away at that level of competition which Phelps, supremely, has made his own.

"Some people like to express themselves in words, some in actions," said Phelps. "So when all the talking is done, I know how I want to express myself. I want to swim. I know what has got me here and I'm very happy.

"We will see what happens in the last week of my time in the Olympics but I am very confident that it will go well. The coolest thing about the Olympics is the meeting of the best of the best. There is so much energy coming with that."

The Australian relay team have christened themselves "Weapons of Mass Destruction" and Phelps was asked for a reaction to the self-belief of the men from Down Under. "It is too easy to get caught up in other people's talk and I have no interesting in running off at the mouth, our country has never done that." If there are raised eyebrows at such a claim, Phelps is comfortably inhabiting his own defences.

He is asked about his reservations over tomorrow night's 400m individual medley, the first gateway at these Olympics to another extraordinary haul of gold medals, another march into unique levels of achievement. "Yes, it is a tough race but I have done my work and I am very confident."

His coach said to expect the toughest of races, "a coach's dream and a spectator's dream".

And, no doubt, an exercise of some torture for the man who is close to racing beyond all previous limits on the ability of an individual to accumulate personal glory. Recently his team-mate Tyler Clary came to his room to apologise for the public suggestion that some swimmers had to graft and suffer for every morsel of success – and that some were able to sail along the surface of the water on a cushion of the purest talent.

The implication was that no one had ever profited from such good fortune as the man who once again threatens to take over an Olympics.

Yesterday Michael Phelps said that he neither demanded nor expected an apology from Clary. The world could think what it liked. He knew who he was and quite how he had succeeded. It made him feel good about the next few days. It made him feel that there was still a little left in quite a remarkable story.


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