The end nears for Phelps -- amid a new beginning

SHANGHAI -- Michael Phelps turned 26 a few weeks ago, at the end of June. He  can see the end of his competitive swimming career, in London, a year from now. The beginning of the end starts here, this week in Shanghai, at the world championships.

Maybe he wins the 100 and 200 butterflys, like he usually does, and maybe he wins back the 200 freestyle from Germany's Paul Biedermann. Maybe he out-duels fellow American Ryan Lochte in the 200 individual medley. Or maybe not. Whatever. This meet matters, of course, because it's the worlds, but at the same time it's a set-up for what matters more, and that's next July in London.

What matters most of all is that Phelps has, over the past several months, discovered anew the essence of what has stamped him as the greatest swimmer of all time.

To be a great swimmer you have to want to be a great swimmer.

Phelps wants it again. "I feel like my own self," he said.

At a jam-packed news conference here Saturday, so crowded that if it had been in the United States the fire marshals would have been on high alert, Phelps acknowledged he had basically played a lot of golf and not done a lot of committed swimming for a good chunk of time after the 2009 worlds in Rome.

Look -- who can blame the guy? How would you like to produce motivation after doing what nobody had done before, winning those eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing?

If you had 14 Olympic gold medals in your career, 16 Olympic medals overall, what would it take to get you out of bed in the morning to go swim in a cold pool?

"It didn't matter how much I wanted him to be there," Bowman said. "He had to want to be there."

The issue was when -- if -- that switch was going to go off.

It clicked several months back.

Phelps has been sitting for news conferences since he was 15; the 26-year-old who sat Saturday and answered questions for nearly 30 minutes proved thoughtful, reflective and mature, indeed.

This is the Michael Phelps his family and close friends know and appreciate; this was really him; he was genuine and forthright and sought to explain why, really why, it clicked and in that explanation he quite unintentionally underscored his extraordinary appeal -- and not just in the United States.

Phelps opened a Twitter-style account here in China just days ago. It's called Weibo here. As of Saturday, it already had 87,169 followers.

Here is the Phelps mantra, which he reiterated Saturday: If you work really hard at something, and don't let anyone tell you something is impossible, you can achieve anything.

What clicked, he made plain, is when he realized that all over again -- now as a grown man, and on his own terms.

"I mean, it was just taking charge of my own actions," Phelps said. "You know, just sort of deciding I wanted to do it for myself -- not Bob having to sort of twist my arm to get me in the pool.

"I know if I want to accomplish my goals, I have to do it myself.

"… For me to actually show up, to work out, I have to do it myself. I have to do it. Over the last six to eight months, that has been the case. I have been excited and happy to be in the pool …"

A few minutes later, he said, "This is just how it is. There are always going to be great times. There are going to be hard times. I haven't dealt with the hard times the last two years like I used to. They're under my belt now. I know what to expect if I don't train.

"… It's funny how when you do train, you do swim well. Who would have thought? It's that easy. All you have to do is train."

Bowman said, "Golf is not good for the 200 butterfly. We can definitively say that."

He also said, "We did a year's worth of training in nine months. How that worked -- we're going to find out -- shortly."

Racing gets underway Sunday with the 400-meter freestyle relay. U.S. men's coach Eddie Reese declined Saturday to say who would be swimming, and in what order; Phelps traditionally swims the lead-off leg. Phelps' first individual race final is likely to come Tuesday -- the 200 free.

"I'm excited," Michael Phelps said, "to get in the water."