"He can't work any harder," says Bowman. "He can't get much stronger. Maybe he can improve his technique a little, but not much. It's really just change for the sake of change."
Going forward, Bowman says, "I'm totally willing to loosen up. Let's be honest: Michael's place in history is secure. Everything from here on out is just gravy. I'd like for him to enjoy it a little more."
"Yeah, right," says Phelps. "There's absolutely no chance he's going to mellow out. Bob has one speed: Go! I'm the one who knows how to relax, not him."
"Did Michael really say that?" asks Debbie, amused. "Mark my words: All it will take is one so-so meet, and he will be back at it full force. He doesn't know any other way. He never has."
SOMETIME SHORTLY after New Year's, Phelps will awaken in the wee hours and leave the enveloping warmth of his bed to make the short journey through the freezing city to Meadowbrook, resuming his solitary pursuit of unmatched excellence. "I hate to train alone," he says. "It can be lonely."
But whether or not there is somebody in the lane next to him, Phelps does not swim alone. He is guided by the inspiration of Mason Surhoff and propelled by the memory of Stevie Hansen. Though he can't hear them, the kids at the Aberdeen Boys and Girls Club cheer him on, and somewhere Dick Ebersol still pulls for him. Phelps's friends and his family and the people of Baltimore are with him, as they always have been.
By championing the cause of water safety Phelps could save many lives, and the trajectory of others will be changed merely by his inspirational example. In 2012, when we are deep into another presidential election and facing challenges that have yet to reveal themselves, Phelps will once again unite a nation. He does not swim alone. He swims for all of us.