Unlike most 23-year-old men in the first week of a new year, Michael Phelps has more reason to look back with satisfaction than to look forward with anticipation. Which is not to say that the most garlanded Olympian of all time feels spent; on the contrary, he already has London 2012 stitched into his swimming cap, rather ominously for his rivals. But will he ever enjoy a year as momentous as 2008, when he surpassed the 36-year-old record held by his compatriot and fellow swimmer Mark Spitz by winning eight gold medals, five of them in individual pursuits, at a single Olympic Games?
And while we are asking unanswerable questions, here's another: was Phelps the transcendent performer in Beijing, or was it the sprint supremo Usain Bolt? Being unanswerable does not mean that folk haven't tried to tackle it, indeed only last week the members of the International Sports Press Association, voting for their 2008 Athlete of the Year, narrowly favoured Bolt. In a poll of journalists from 96 nations, the Jamaican was accorded 1,673 points over 1,557 for Phelps. Before that, voters for the BBC Overseas Sports Personality of the Year award reached the same judgement: bravo Phelps for a fantastic, historic achievement and all that, but Bolt's stirring deeds on the track, they decided, gave him the edge.
So, it seems worth devoting the first precious few seconds of my transatlantic phone interview to asking Phelps whether he thinks this was a reasonable conclusion to draw, or whether he feels that the unprecedented haul of eight golds (to add to the six golds and two bronzes that he won in Athens) should have elevated him above Bolt in the minds of those who like to rank these things... or is he perhaps of the opinion that the whole exercise is a nonsense, that you might as well compare apples with oranges as runners with swimmers?
Down the line from Baltimore comes a brief crackle of static. Or maybe it is the sound of the great man's disapproval. "It's nothing to do with me," he says. "I'm satisfied that I achieved what I did, that I was successful no matter what anyone says or how anyone votes. When I get in the water I can control myself and what I do. Beyond that I have no control." A slight pause. "But congratulations to him [Bolt], he did a phenomenal job last summer."
This is by a distance the most opinionated answer that Phelps offers in our 20-minute conversation. It is never easy to interview someone over the phone; without eye contact it is difficult to establish a rapport or any meaningful engagement. But even if we were in the same room I fancy Phelps might be hard-going. As one or two broadcasters found out in Beijing, he does his best talking in the water.
This is not to excoriate him; there is no reason why our sporting gods should be articulate in anything other than the language of sport. On the other hand, he is not an unintelligent young man, and could surely throw out a few more morsels than he does. For example, when I suggest that his global fame since Beijing must have catapulted him into the company of men and women he has always admired, inspirational people he would never have met had it not been for his staggering success in the pool, he says: "Oh sure, some NFL and NBA players, some actors and actresses, and it's been interesting to see how they deal with things."
Can he name a few? "It's hard to really say who." OK, then has he yet met President-elect Barack Obama? "I have not met Obama." Does he hope to? "An opportunity to meet the President would be awesome."
And so it goes on, but then maybe an answer can only be as good as a question, and maybe it is the questions that are lacklustre. Can I ask what you had for breakfast this morning? "I haven't eaten anything yet."
I don't always ask interviewees what they have had for breakfast, in fact it might be a first, but as I tell Phelps, my two sons are listening to our conversation and as single-bowl-of-cereal guys they were wide-eyed when I read to them what he habitually starts the day with when he is training: three fried-egg sandwiches with cheese, lettuce, tomato, fried onions and mayonnaise, followed by a five-egg omelette, a bowl of grits, three slices of French toast with powdered sugar. And that's the restrained version; sometimes he concludes with a heap of chocolate-chip pancakes.
Can he tell me what his average daily calorie intake is? "I have absolutely no clue." When he isn't training, though, isn't it hard to break the habit of such titanic consumption? "Not really, because I'm not as hungry." OK, stupid question. I hear he knows the footballer Anton Ferdinand. How? "Through a friend. I follow Sunderland, because of Anton, and Man U. I'm still trying to figure soccer out. I used to play when I was, like, 10."
So let's turn to his childhood, although I have been warned off the subject of his father, Fred, from whom he is estranged. They last set eyes on each other at his sister Whitney's wedding in October 2005, and even then they did not speak. But there does not seem much point in my breaking the rules: if he won't tell which actors he enjoyed meeting, he is hardly likely to open up about his old man. Instead I ask him about the bullying he endured at school in the years after his father walked out on the family. He was teased remorselessly for having big ears and a lisp, was constantly either in tears or on the verge of them, and it did not help that he suffered from attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD). Has he encountered any of the bullies since becoming a superstar?
"Yeah, sometimes they come out of the woodwork and like to say 'Hi', but it doesn't work. I know who picked on me, and I know who my friends are. I know what my support system is, and those people have been with me through everything."
His AD/HD was treated with Ritalin, but it was swimming that really resolved the problem, once his mother, nearing the end of her tether, started taking him and his two older sisters to the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. His sisters were decent swimmers too, in fact Whitney was an Olympic triallist in 1996. But it was her little brother, little except in size, whose talent shone brightest. And once he hooked up with the experienced coach Bob Bowman – a disciplinarian from South Carolina who had very handily studied child psychology at university – the talent was harnessed. Before Beijing they were both based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but now they are back in Phelps' native Maryland, back at the very pool where he caught the swimming bug 16 years ago.
Both men reject the convenient notion that Bowman is a surrogate father, but plainly the relationship is pivotal to Phelps' success. Yet it was nearly dead in the water. When Bowman first saw the long-limbed youngster running around the pool, and generally behaving in a challenging way, he pronounced him "uncoachable", an assessment somewhat belied by 14 gold medals at two Olympic Games. Which brings me to London 2012. How strongly, I wonder, does it register on his radar?
"Oh, quite a bit, for sure. We already have 'London 2012' on our caps and it takes about four years to prepare physically and mentally for the Olympics. Hopefully I'll be able to make the team." Does he have an idea who his toughest rivals will be? "That's hard to say. I keep track of the times everyone swims, but I don't know how they will progress. I just have to put myself in the best condition, and if I do that it doesn't matter how everyone else swims."
I assume he means by this that if he is in peak condition in London, the rest will be there just to make up the numbers. It is a reasonable forecast. After all, with those eight golds in Beijing came seven world records, with just the 100m butterfly yielding 'only' an Olympic record. I ask which of those records he most enjoyed? His reply is wholly predictable. "It's hard to figure which means most," he says.
I don't mean to be catty. Here is a young man who has achieved something no other mortal ever has, and it is a privilege, really, just to be talking to him. Besides, not all sporting stars have an emotional hinterland. That he manifestly does is perhaps what makes him a guarded, rather one-dimensional interviewee, and I should add that his latest book, No Limits, is an inspiring read, suggesting that his ferocious will to win can be applied to all kinds of disciplines. It is on that theme that I make one last stab at getting a dialogue going. Has he learnt anything from sports other than swimming? "Not really," he says. "It's tough to relate other sports to the sport of swimming." Silence. "But I really looked up to Michael Jordan," he adds, obligingly, and even my tape-recorder gives a faint gasp of relief.
'No Limits: The Will To Succeed' by Michael Phelps, is published by Simon & Schuster, priced £12.99
Phelps in numbers
7 Number of world records Michael Phelps currently holds.
14 Phelps tops the list of all-time Olympian gold medal winners after last year's exploits in Beijing
8 In winning an eighth gold medal in the 4x100m medley relay in Beijing, Phelps surpassed compatriot Mark Spitz' record of seven golds in one Games, a total the moustachioed one accrued in Munich in 1972.
5 Phelps has been named World Swimmer of the Year in five of the last six years (2003, '04, '06, '07 & '08) and the American Swimmer of the Year seven times (2001, '02, '03, '04, '06, '07 & '08).
48 Total number of career medals won by Phelps - 40 gold, six silver and 2 bronze.
10 The swimmer was selected as one of Barbara Walters' Top 10 Most Fascinating People of 2008.
38 Number of individual US national titles Phelps holds.
16 Total number of Olympic medals won by Phelps (eight in Athens in 2004, eight in Beijing in 2008) .
Pools apart: How Phelps swam to the top of the list of all-time Olympic gold medal winners
Michael Phelps , United States Swimming 2004-2008 14 gold medals
Larissa Latynina, Soviet Union Gymnastics 1956-1964 9 gold medals
Carl Lewis, United States Athletics 1984-1996 9 gold medals
Paavo Nurmi, Finland Athletics 1920-1928 9 gold medals
Mark Spitz, United States Swimming 1968-1972 9 gold medals
Matt Biondi, United States Swimming 1984-1992 8 gold medals
Bjørn Dæhlie (Winter), Norway Cross-County Skiing 1992-1998 8 gold medals
Ray Ewry, United States Swimming 1900-1908 8 gold medals
Birgit Fischer, Germany Canoeing 1980-2004 8 gold medals
Sawao Kato, Japan Gymnastics 1968-1976 8 gold medals
Jenny Thompson, United States Swimming 1992-2004 8 gold medals