This day in mid-April began as so many have for Michael Phelps: at Meadowbrook pool in Mount Washington, Md., where the mileage he has swum through the years would have gotten him to London a long time ago. But on this Saturday, the Baltimore swimmer's work would continue out of the water as well.
On deck was Ryan Seacrest, a prime-time host of NBC's coverage of the Summer Olympics in London, in town to interview him. And later that night, Phelps would headline a fundraising gala for Meadowbrook's North Baltimore Aquatic Club, mingling with the Maryland governor and first lady and donors who in some cases paid in the five figures to meet him.
This event was also the beginning of the end of one of the greatest Olympic careers ever. The demands both in and out of the pool are greater than ever before for the 26-year-old Phelps, but he says he is both excited and at ease heading into his fourth and final Olympics.
"I think the real biggest difference is that Bob and I are more relaxed now than we were," Phelps said, mentioning his famously intense coach, Bob Bowman. "That's probably the real big change."
London approaches as something of a bittersweet event. Phelps himself has acknowledged the pride and sadness he feels as he puts this cap on his competitive swimming career.
But the nostalgia comes with no small measure of anticipation. Though Phelps has been adamant he won't duplicate his 2008 program in Beijing, a record-breaking eight-for-eight gold-medal performance, he has slyly refused to reveal just how many and which races he'll enter in London.
Cue the speculation, layered with the wishful thinking of those eager to be dazzled one more time by Phelps.
"This is my gut feeling and also snooping around a little bit -- seven events," said Rowdy Gaines, the three-time Olympic gold-medalist and NBC swimming analyst, guessing four individual races and three relays.
As for the number of medals Phelps might bring home, Gaines expects "as many events as he swims," even if they're not all gold.
It's hard to overstate Phelps' importance to his sport, the Olympics and even NBC's ratings. In 2008, viewership jumped every night he swam and dropped when he didn't. At least one industry analyst says he expects viewers to tune in again for the sequel.
"The Olympics thrive on storytelling," said Larry Gerbrandt, head of Los Angeles-based research firm Media Valuation Partners. "We haven't had too many other athletes in recent years where you could link them back to a previous Olympics. When you have a back story like Phelps', and they can build it up -- 'Can he do it again?' -- this is grist for the mill. This is what Olympic broadcasters do best."
Olympic commentator Mel Stewart, a gold and bronze medalist in the 1992 Games, agreed that after Beijing, Phelps is "hovering in the stratosphere."
"I think what's astonishing is he came back," said Stewart, who last month launched a popular news and commentary website, swimswam.com. Though Phelps acknowledges it took him some time after Beijing to renew his commitment and training, by this year, Stewart was among those who were cheered to see him return to form.
Stewart points in particular to Phelps' 200-meter freestyle win in the Columbus (Ohio) Grand Prix swim meet in March as a turning point.
"He has not looked like that since '08. He was swimming high in the water with strength and such a nice flow and command of stroke," Stewart said. "The way he was kicking, his stroke cycle, it was: 'Oh, my God, Michael is back.'"
Phelps created more buzz at the Indianapolis stop of the Grand Prix series in late March when he won the 400-meter individual medley, the so-called decathlon of the sport that combines all four strokes. Stewart thinks Phelps could add this event to his London lineup and even go eight for eight again, although he concedes that's his heart talking.
"We are so emotionally attached to this guy," Stewart said of the gratitude swimmers have toward how Phelps has elevated the sport.
To illustrate his role in swimming's greater popularity post- than pre-Phelps, Gaines points to the fact that this year, for the first time, NBC will cover every night of the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Omaha that begin June 25, and selected Grand Prix events.
"We only cover the ones Michael's swimming in," he said. "Of course, everyone else receives the benefits of that, but my point is ... it's because of Michael, pure and simple. He's grown the sport."
Who might stand between Phelps and multiple trips to the medal stand is also subject to much speculation. His closest American competitor is Ryan Lochte, who despite a mostly lackluster performance at their last meeting, in Indianapolis, beat him several times in head-to-head matchups in previous years.
A fast Australian team, led by current sensation James Magnussen, is headed to London and poses the biggest threat to U.S. swimmers repeating past gold-medal victories in the always-exciting relay races.
But back in Baltimore, Team Phelps says it's too soon to call favorites going into London.
"We'll have to wait and see," said Bowman, who will be one of the coaches of the U.S. Olympic swim team. Bowman said that because the U.S. trials come later than many other countries, it's impossible to say how the relay teams will stack up against one another.
Phelps, for his part, says there's only one thing he can control en route to London.
"I can only prepare myself," he said. "I'm only in charge of myself. I know Bob and I can get the job done."