What the water gave Phelps the medals machine: a record 14 Olympic gold medals - a record eight of those won in 2008, a record 26 world titles, a record 37 world records - and a seven-event programme in which three medals of any colour would make him the most decorated Olympian of all time (Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina notched up 18 in the 1960s) - the undisputed greatest of greats.
“You guys keep bringing the medal count up - I never once said anything about medals,” he smiled after taking photos of a packed media conference of several hundred journalists, the only horizon a broad bank of cameras trained on an Olympic swansong like no other.
In the great one’s path stands swimming’s rock star, Ryan Lochte, “just having fun” while dragging tractor tyres and chains uphill on a mission to mash Michael.
He sort of got there last year at worlds titles in Shanghai: the Olympic champion was beaten in the 200m freestyle and beaten in the 200IM in the only world record to take out a global standard set in booster bodysuits since banned.
If Lochte's progress has kept Phelps' fire burning, then the shiny suits locked Lochte on to an opportunity he grasped more readily than the rest. The January 1, 2010 ban on non-textile suits was a gift from the god of incentives. “Back then anyone could put on a suit and be fast. It wasn't really the swimmer [being fast] it was the suit making the swimmer. Now its the reverse. I like it," said Lochte at the USA press conference in London today.
“If I had my way we would go back to the old school when we were all wearing banana hammocks,” he added to laughter all round in a room packed with several hundred reporters. Textile suits, he believed, had sorted the “real swimmers” from the rest.
On that score, among those set apart from "the rest" is Phelps. These Games would serve as “closure” on an Olympic career that began with a 5th place finish in the 200m butterfly at 15 in Sydney, noted the greatest of greats. London was “about how many toppings I want on my sundae”.
His fourth time round had been “more emotional because these will be the last competitive moments in my career. 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."
Asked to compare Beijing and London: "It's hard to compare myself now to then. The goals are different," he said. "Going into Beijing we were trying to conquer everything. I have only dropped one event but we have been a lot more relaxed for the last four years and we are having fun."
Coach Bob Bowman describes London as being “about getting back to the sheer joy he felt as a 15-year-old in Sydney". Phelps, 6ft 4in, suggested he was doing just that: "I walked out of the cafeteria this morning and I walked past three Russian female athletes who were all taller than me. I was like, man, I thought I was tall! It's cool to experience all of that." He also noted that Londoners were “so friendly ... and the food is better here than it was in last couple Olympics.”
No-one, Lochte least of all, will be fooled: beneath the smile is a killer whale of a champion. On the opening night on Saturday, the 400Im marks the first clash of titans.
“It will be a challenging race and an exciting challenge,” said Phelps. “I’ve changed a couple of things in that race [tactically] so we’ll see if it helps. I’m gonna fire one off. I guarantee its gonna be loud in there on the opening night.”
Bowman chimed in: “For someone who wants to promote the sport of swimming, there was no better thing than to swim that race. It will be a coach’s dream to see how that pans out and a spectators dream too - but not a swimmer’s dream.”
“It will be the most painful ever - but it will be last one - we will never do this again,” added Phelps. Once he had left the stage, Lochte joined teammates at the overall USA team press conference. First question for Ryan: “Tell us about your plans to beat Michael Phelps.”
Through beaming smile, Lochte said he was “not really going to swim to beat Michael” and that there were “a bunch of others” in the race to worry about. His coach and head men’s coach for the US Gregg Troy chipped in: “He doesn't need to worry - Michael will be right there.”
Of late, Phelps’ commitment has been called into question, Tyler casting doubt on his work ethic before apologizing to the biggest winner of them all.
Asked if Clary had spoken to him about the incident, Phelps said: "Tyler said something to me the next day and said everything was taken out of context and he apologised. I said he didn't need to say anything. He sat in my room for 10 minutes and talked to me and I said 'I understand … whatever you say you say'. We are teammates, we come in to competition as one and we leave as one. We compete together."
Bowman bristled when the matter was raised and noted that Phelps had “trained every day for six years without a break leading up to Athens 2004”. His charge had the background, the family support, the physical attributes (large feet and a long torso), “a superb work ethic” and the greatest attribute “his ability to focus under the maximum pressure and get the most out of his body ... the maximum performance when the stakes are at the highest”. The laundry list of greatness had every box ticked.
If there is a man in the world who can match Phelps here and now it is Lochte, a friend on dry land, out to kill in water. “He's my competitor,” said Lochte. “We created a great rivalry but at the same time a great friendship. After the race we're still gonna be friends.” For just over four minutes on Saturday night, you'd be forgiven for finding that less than credible.
Meantime, Missy Franklin, after saying she had been "bouncing off the walls with energy", acknowledged, with tears in her eyes a show of genuine emotion, that she had been knocked by the news of the Batman film premiere killings back home in Colorado. She had clocked on a link to the news and called home to speak to her parents. "You have to wonder why these things happen in the world," she said.
She is entered in four solo events and may make it to three relays in London for a total of 7 targets, each one a potential medal result. What made it possible for the US to be able to stand up a month ago at trials and now be ready to deliver at best when it most counted?
"Personally, I feel one of the strengths of our country is competitiveness," said women's head coach Terri McKeever. "We end up with best team in London … end up with a team that continues to be successful at the next level, continues to improve."
Head coach to the Us men Gregg Troy added: "It [the trials at which two go, the rest fall] prepares us well for this competition … the two fastest go: it hardens us a little, gives us a good feeling as to where we're at."