While the greatest swimmer in history enjoyed high-profile promotional appearances, easy living and even an embarrassing episode in which he was photographed with a marijuana pipe, Ryan Lochte a two-time medalist himself was crawling up from behind. Lochte eventually took down Phelps in two races at the world championships last year in Shanghai, putting himself into position to be the new golden boy of the 2012 London Olympics this summer.
"This is my time," he often tells reporters.
And that did not sit well with Phelps.
"It wasn't fun," the 14-time Olympic gold medalist acknowledged at the U.S. Olympic Committee's media summit on Sunday. "Obviously I put myself in that spot, I put myself in the spot to not swim the times I want. He was just kind of rolling over me. It wasn't fun to be on that end. It was something that was very motivating for me."
Still, Phelps and coach Bob Bowman play coy, as usual.
They downplay the growing hype surrounding a potential showdown with Lochte. They won't speak of their goals, even though Phelps needs only three medals to reach 19 for his career and become the most-decorated Olympian ever.
They even dismiss questions about which events Phelps will swim in London and the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha in June, despite his two-year layoff from the sport.
"Why is it such a big deal what I swim?" he asked.
Lochte skipped the media summit in order to finish competing at the Charlotte Grand Prix, where he won the 200 IM on Sunday after failing to medal in his other five events clearly not taking much of the competition too seriously by wearing briefs instead of a racing suit.
In what was probably his last race against Phelps until the Olympic Trials in Omaha, Lochte was far back in the sixth in the 200 freestyle, while Phelps was second.
Phelps also finished second in the 200 butterfly Saturday, then flew to Dallas and answered questions for nearly an hour, turning introspective at times.
"Last year was the year I kind of woke up a little more than I had in past," he said. "It kind of, I guess, got to me a little more. In 2010, it was kind of like, 'Whatever.' Last year, it was like, 'This is so frustrating.' It never was a fun feeling. But last year it was something that super-frustrated me. I did everything I can to try fight back. And hopefully I did, to where I can make up some of the ground that Ryan has put on me."
But Phelps did reiterate his plan to retire after London, his third Olympics even though he joked that his mother keeps insisting he will be going to the 2016 Rio Games in Brazil.
"We'll go and watch," he said with a smile.
For now, though, Phelps is focused on London.
He and Bowman will spend most of the next six weeks training at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, before the Olympic trials, where he and Lochte will finally square off again in what could be a dramatic preview of London.
"It's going to be a fun summer," Phelps said.
Swimmer Michael Phelps has won 14 gold medals and 16 medals overall in the Olympics:
Year Location G S B
2004 Athens 6 0 2
2008 Beijing 8 0 0