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Michael Phelps is relaxed, ready

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  July 26, 2012 01:12 PM

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LONDON -- Sitting alone except for his coach in front of dozens of reporters at the Main Press Centre Thursday, Michael Phelps found the one person among the horde who could almost identify with him.

The particular reporter, rather familiar to viewers of recent Winter Olympics and currently moonlighting for NBC during the Summer Games, was identified by the public relations person selecting questioners at the press conference as "the man in the blue shirt.''

Phelps laughed. "His name's Apolo,'' he deadpanned.

Yes, that one. Apolo Anton Ohno, an eight-time medalist in short-track speed-skating, asked Phelps a question about keeping things simple, one Olympic legend to another. But Ohno's presence also stood as a reminder of just how dominating Phelps has been, not just in his particular sport, but in Olympic lore.

He has 16 medals -- twice as many as Ohno, whose career total Phelps matched in gold during his record-setting performance in Beijing. In London, it's practically a formality that his collection will grow to a record number.

Phelps, 27, has a record 14 golds among his 16 medals, and should surpass the 18 won by Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina sometime in the middle of next week if all goes according to plan. He is competing in seven events this time around, starting with the 400 individual medley Saturday when the swimming competition begins.

"This is the last competitive meet I'm going to have in my career," Phelps said. "It's big. It's something I've never experienced. I'm going to have a lot of firsts and a lot of lasts this week."

Phelps casually but firmly insists that medal counts and records aren't driving him, using the analogy that whatever he wins in London are "the toppings on the sundae."

"You guys are the ones who keep bringing medal counts up,'' he said. "I've never once in my career said anything about medal counts. I'm here to swim as fast as I can, and if I do that, it's all that matters. I've said this before and I'll say it again. The only person I can control is myself.''

Relaxed and at times reflective, he said he's trying to enjoy the camaraderie of what he has repeatedly said will be his final Olympics, though often he finds himself killing time by watching movies and episodes of "The Wire" in the common room.

He's savoring his surroundings and the experience, something that wasn't always possible because of the pressure that accompanied his bid for eight golds in Beijing.

"I think it's sort of hard to compare myself now to then,'' Phelps said. "The goals are different. In Beijing, we were trying to conquer anything and everything. We're a lot more relaxed. We're having fun."

He joked Wednesday about walking out of the cafeteria in the village, only to spot three Russian female athletes walking his way -- all taller than his 6-foot-4-inch frame.

"Geez, I thought I was tall," he said. "But that's the cool thing about coming here and being in the village and getting to experience all of that. I know I have a very full schedule this week, but [coach] Bob [Bowman] and I have prepared ourselves to do the best we can."

Phelps reiterated he had no issue with teammate Tyler Clary telling the Riverside (Calif.) Press-Enterprise recently that Phelps doesn't work as hard as less-gifted swimmers and that it's "a shame.''

"Tyler said everything was taken out of context, he has apologized,'' Phelps said. "I said he doesn't need to say anything. He sat in my room for 10 minutes talking about it. He did not need to do that. Whatever you say, you say. I spent a year at school [Michigan] with Tyler. We have known each other for a long time. In Team USA we have always come into the competition as one and left as one."

Phelps joked that perhaps he takes a different approach to training than teammate, friend and rival Ryan Lochte -- "Ryan might be throwing a tire. I don't see myself throwing a tire,'' he said -- but it's apparent the respect Phelps receives from his Team USA teammates, who followed him as a group on the podium.

"When he's with us, he's just ... normal. He's like all of us,'' Lochte said. "We don't see him as anything different. He definitely does get more exposure after what he did in 2004 and 2008. He deserves it.''

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