Fourteen-time Olympic swimming gold medalist Michael Phelps is gearing up for the World Championships in Shanghai in July, obviously an important meet in and of itself and also a critical gauge of his form on the way to what would be his fourth Summer Games next year. He'll race in two more Grand Prix events in the United States this spring -- Charlotte later this month, and Santa Clara, Calif., in mid-June -- with a block of altitude training in between, and compete in a meet in Montreal as final preparation for worlds.
Phelps recently told The Associated Press he tentatively plans to race in four individual events and three relays in China.
With his competitive schedule ramping up, Phelps squeezed in time to promote his new video game, "Push the Limit" (scheduled for release next month), and do photo shoots for sponsors in his hometown of Baltimore last week. Having gone full-throttle on dry land since 6 a.m. that morning, he admitted he was in need of a nap when he sat down with ESPN.com's Bonnie D. Ford but perked up at questions on how his season has gone so far.
The following are excerpts from that conversation:
Question from Ford: I know you want to compete well everywhere you go, but really, bottom line, does anything count this year besides worlds?
Answer from Phelps: I think there are some little points along the way that I want to hit before worlds, just so I know that I'm making the right step in the right direction leading up to worlds, because I know that the better worlds is, the better [Olympic] trials are and hopefully the Olympics. This is a big summer and I'm going to try to put everything into worlds that I can.
Q: Those are familiar mountains to climb. Having been through that process many times, is there anything different about it this time, particularly mentally, being more mature?
A: The only thing that needs to happen now is to make sure the training is there and I should be able to be fine. If it's not there, that's where the problem lies. I just have to make sure I'm as prepared as I can be, and make sure I can look back at the last couple of years and say that I did everything that I could.
Q: Aside from the training, which is hard enough, your life's not your own when you're doing this. I noticed last weekend you were in Vegas to do an event [The Encore Beach Club season opening] and, of course, the tabloids are saying you're surrounded by "busty blondes" and this and that.
A: And my girlfriend was standing right next to me.
Q: It's difficult to be under that microscope all the time. Do you ever allow yourself a moment of frustration with that?
A: I've lived in this spotlight for 10 years. I try to be myself and do what makes me happy.
Q: There's never a flash of, "Why the hell am I putting myself through this again?"
A: If I didn't want to put myself through it, I wouldn't do it. That's why it took so long for me to really decide I wanted to come back. I was the only one who could essentially make that decision, and I wanted to make sure it was still there and I was ready to go for 3½-4 years. I was able to find goals and things I still wanted to accomplish, and that's why I came back after Beijing.
Q: I read your comments after the 200 fly in Ann Arbor [Phelps lost the event last month for the first time since 2002, finishing fourth in a race won by China's Wu Peng at the Namesnik Grand Prix] about it being a wake-up call, which is what I would expect somebody in your position to say. Now that it's had time to sink in, are you still as fired up about it? Is that always going to be a special race amongst races for you?
A: I think so, and you know, it is disappointing, [the winning streak] was something I wanted to keep throughout my career. But I can't look back at the past. What happened, happened. I have to put that race behind me and do everything I can so that it doesn't happen again. It's completely frustrating. I'm very disappointed not to be able to keep that for another 15 months. But it actually was a good wake-up call for me, because it clearly shows I haven't done enough 200-butterfly training recently. It's something I need to go back to.
Q: Is there any special motivation to go out and get back the world record for the 200 free, since the suit controversy was involved? [Germany's Paul Biedermann set the record of 1:42, carving .96 off Phelps' old mark, in July 2009 wearing a since-banned polyurethane suit.]
A: There's a motivation to get every one that is my best time. That's what you shoot for as a swimmer. You don't want to do all this training and not improve. At the end of each year, the little tiny improvements are what you're looking for, making small improvements to get close to my best time, or [set] my best time. Without the [banned] suits, it will be harder; you will have to be in better shape, you will have to be stronger, you will have to be able to get through the water cleaner. It is going to be a lot more challenging. The people who want it bad enough are the people who are going to be able to do that.
Q: So you think that particular time is attainable?
A: Anything is possible. I've said that throughout my whole career and I'll say it for the rest of my life. If you want something bad enough and you put your mind to it, there's nothing your body and your mind can't achieve.
Q: You've taken very little time off in your career. Ian Thorpe is now attempting to come back after having been out of the pool for many years. Can you imagine doing that?
A: He really hasn't competed since 2004. That's a long time. I barely got back into it after taking six months off after Beijing. Seven years would be ... I don't even want to think how painful that is. You put your body through something for so long, and then you take an extended period of time off, and then you have to come back and recover and go through all the training. It's tough. I'm glad to have him back in the sport. He's a tremendous competitor. When I heard he was coming back, I said if he really, truly wants to do it, he will do it and he'll make sure he's at the top. That's the way he is.
Q: He's someone who drives a lot of interest in his country [Australia]. You're someone who drives a lot of interest here and all over the world. I've read a lot of stories in the past six months saying that you bear this burden of the popularity of the sport. Is that the way you see it? Do you feel it?
A: I'm just doing something I love, something I enjoy, and I'm doing it because I want to. I don't look at it as pressure. I do what I want to do, I have a goal, I go out and achieve it, I move on to the next one.
Q: But you've said many times that you want to take swimming to a new level. You see the big picture. You're not just seeing the black line every day.
A: No, I mean, I see everything, but for me to be able to get to the big picture, I have to stare at the black line every day. I have to make sure that I'm at the top of my game and doing everything the right way, how I think it should be done.
Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.