London • Golden Boy Michael Phelps seems happier these days.
He seems more like the gangly teenager whose Olympic journey began 12 years ago in Sydney than the man whose record-shattering career is expected to end in the coming days at the Aquatics Centre in London.
“This is closure,” Phelps said Thursday during a packed news conference at Olympic Park that included speedskating star Apolo Anton Ohno, who works for NBC. “This is the last competitive meet I’m going to have in my career. It’s something I’ve never experienced. I’m going to have a lot of firsts and a lot of lasts this week.”
Then the kid in Phelps added, “Now it’s just a matter of how many toppings I want on my sundae.”
Most already know the answer: three. With 16 medals — 14 of them gold — Phelps is on the verge of becoming the most decorated Olympian in history. He needs three medals to pass Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, who won 18 medals.
But the swimmer from Baltimore insisted he doesn’t think about all those medals.
“You guys are the ones that keep bringing up the medal count,” he said. “I have never once in my career brought up medal counts.”
Phelps, 27, will start off the Games on Saturday against rival Ryan Lochte in the day’s biggest event — the 400-meter individual medley. It is the decathlon of swimming, with competitors swimming each of the four strokes.
Phelps, who is scheduled to swim seven events, had repeatedly said he wouldn’t try to do the grueling medley again. But over the past year his training changed his mind.
He also has readjusted his goals enough to accept the fact he might not win every race he enters.
“It’s hard to compare myself now to then,” Phelps said of Beijing, where he became the first swimmer to win eight Olympic races. “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.”
Natalie Coughlin has noticed a change.
“He’s really stepped up as a leader,” she said.
Phelps, Coughlin added, can’t enjoy the Olympics like most athletes.
“At times I do feel sorry for him,” she said. “He can’t just walk around the village” without being hounded for autographs by other athletes. “That’s the burden he carries as a 14-time gold medalist.”
Despite an ambitious program that includes three relays, Phelps sounded as if he is trying to soak up the atmosphere as much as possible. He talked about spotting three Russian female athletes in the Olympic Village who were taller than him.
“Geez, I thought I was tall,” the 6-foot-4 Phelps said.
Phelps isn’t the only one sounding more relaxed. Longtime coach Bob Bowman also is enjoying the experience more.
“Michael is different and so am I,” he said. “We are just not so uptight about it. I don’t think it has been in a way that takes away from what he is doing in the pool. It has enhanced it.”
But don’t mistake Phelps’ laid-back attitude for a lack of motivation. The swimmer made that clear when asked about U.S. teammate Tyler Clary’s recent comments saying Phelps is not a hard worker.
“Some people like to express their feelings in words,” Phelps said. “I like to do it through hard work. If someone else does not think that, it doesn’t matter.”
What matters is absorbing the final, emotional moments of a career that has made Phelps perhaps the greatest Olympian in history.
It’s not something he would say, not with a week’s worth of racing ahead.
But even before he leaps off the starting block in London, many sense Phelps will be the greatest by the time these Games come to a close.