What's left for Michael Phelps to prove?

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

IRVINE, Calif. -- As he climbed out of the pool after his preliminary heat in the 400-meter individual medley last week, Michael Phelps smiled.

The grin wasn't backed by happiness or joy, but rather humbleness, embarrassment and pain. It was as though he were a sly little boy who had just been caught breaking the rules and wasn't sure how bad his punishment would be.

This wasn't the greatest Olympian of all time. This wasn't the man who won a record eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games, one of them with his goggles filled with water. This was somebody altogether different, somebody who had cut a few corners and was publicly paying the price.

He [Phelps] needed a little reality check. Well, here it is. Even though you're the greatest ever, you still need to work. You can't just glide by.

-- Bob Bowman, Michael Phelps' coach

Phelps hadn't swum the 400 IM, the decathlon of swimming, since Beijing. But at the urging of his mother, his coach and his own competitive thirst, he tried it again at last week's Pan Pacific Championships, the biggest international meet of 2010.

It was the event Phelps had been dreading and his coach, Bob Bowman, had been waiting for. In 4:15, reality smacked Phelps flush against the face. Although his time was the fourth-fastest of all qualifiers, it wasn't among the top two Americans, preventing him from qualifying for the finals. Of greater surprise, it was a whopping 12 seconds slower than Phelps' world-record time from China.

After the race, as his body roared with a disapproving sting and his lungs tried to pace his heavy breathing, Phelps tried to put into words what it felt like to be, well, human.

"Holy crap," he began between breaths.

"Oh my God," he continued.

"That was painful," he concluded. "I shouldn't have done that."

Something to prove

No one would have blamed Michael Phelps if he would have taken his goggles and gone home. Sure, he was only 23 at the time, but really, what else was there to prove?

He had spent seven non-stop years preparing for the 2008 Games and had accomplished seemingly every goal he had set out to achieve -- becoming the first Olympian to win eight gold medals in a single Olympics and raising his career Olympic gold count to a record 14. His face was everywhere, from cereal boxes to network TV. His legacy was cemented as the greatest swimmer ever.

As hard as it was, he knew it would never be easier. If he continued to swim, unbeatable perfection would be the standard by which he would be judged. And he was only getting older. No one would have blamed him for taking a pass.

"You just get to a point where you start to wonder, 'Why am I doing this?'" said 28-year-old Amanda Beard, the four-time Olympic swimmer. "'I'm going to get up on the block, jump in the water and make my body hurt again. Why?'"

"As you get older, it's harder on your body, and when you don't feel the way you should, it's harder on your mind," said U.S. teammate Eric Shanteau, 26. "And at the same time, you start wondering, 'What else is there in life?'"

Phelps asked himself those questions, but he couldn't stop. It wasn't an option. Not because he's some sort of crazy competitor who still has goals to achieve in the water (he does), or because he wants to raise the bar on what it means to be the best ever (he does). No, Michael Phelps can't quit because he is his sport.

When he swims, the fans and the media show up. When he doesn't, they don't. In its annual release of sports Q scores earlier this year, Marketing Evaluations Inc. ranked Phelps higher than Derek Jeter, Kobe Bryant or Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- in a non-Olympic year.

"Just go to a meet he's swimming at and look around," said former Indiana University swimmer Todd Patrick, who now trains with Phelps in Baltimore. "Everything we have is because of this guy. A friend and I were just talking about the fact that we're so glad Michael is still swimming and trying to compete, because without Mike there isn't much of a sport left."

Phelps has long said one of his main goals is to grow the sport of swimming. He wants to make it cool. So, after Beijing, there was no stopping, in or out of the pool. He traveled to London for the official Olympic handover. There was an eight-city tour with Boys & Girls Clubs of America. There were sponsor appearances, speaking engagements and community outreach programs in China, France, Saudi Arabia, England, Canada, Germany and Sweden, among others.

With the $1 million bonus Speedo gave him for winning more than seven gold medals in a single Olympic games, Phelps began The Michael Phelps Foundation, aimed at growing the sport and promoting healthy and active lives. Then, there was the Michael Phelps Swim School (formally North Baltimore Swim School), hosting "Saturday Night Live," the Disney World parade, the "60 Minutes" profile and the GQ cover.

On and on it went ... until it all came to a crashing halt.

In February 2009, a British tabloid newspaper published a photo of Phelps smoking a marijuana pipe at a party. He later acknowledged the photo was real, apologized for his "poor judgment" and served a three-month suspension from USA Swimming. Fair of unfair, the photo still puts an asterisk on his image today. Type "Michael Phelps" into Google and suggested searches of "Michael Phelps weed" and "Michael Phelps bong" are listed above "Michael Phelps 8 gold medals" in the drop-down menu. The same spotlight Phelps sought to grow his sport had backfired.

"We knew this was going to be a big deal, but I think none of us really would have imagined the level of scrutiny he would get," Bowman said. "His biggest thing is that he's given up his privacy, as we have all seen. But that's the price you pay for living the life he's living, and he's learned that."

Despite the distractions, Phelps went on to win gold in five of his six events at last year's world championships. He also set four new world records. Despite the dominance, Bowman wonders in hindsight why he even had Phelps swim at worlds. Maybe giving him more time off back then could have prevented what the swimmer and coach are facing now.

Going off course

Bob Bowman is the Phil Jackson of swimming. His swimmers have won a combined 21 Olympic gold medals and set 34 world records. Nothing comes out of his mouth without some kind of calculated, mind-driven motivation behind it. He has high expectations for all his swimmers. Absences, tardiness and anything less than 100 percent every minute of every day is simply unacceptable.

So you can imagine Bowman's frustration over the past 18 months when Phelps stopped coming to training sessions after his whirlwind post-Beijing tour and world championships appearance in Rome. Without a phone call or an e-mail, he just wouldn't show up.

"I used every trick I had," Bowman said. "At first, I tried to be really patient, which is not a strong suit. I acted like it didn't bother me even though it killed me. Then I said, 'Screw that,' and got all over him and he missed like two straight weeks."

After one day in particular, Bowman said he completely lost it. While everyone else on the North Baltimore team needed to do another type of training, Phelps' needs called for something entirely different. Because Phelps had attended a string of consecutive practices, Bowman decided -- on that one day -- he would build the training session around Phelps' needs, but the swimmer didn't show up.

"Not only did he not get what he needed done, but then the whole group is in the pool doing not what they need, but what he needed," Bowman said. "It's very difficult for me. I don't tolerate this sort of thing. I have a group of people who never miss a practice, who come in early, who do all the work. Then there's this somebody else who's at 30 to 40 percent. It's hard to reconcile that. It's hard to keep saying to the kids, 'Back when Michael was working hard, he would do it this way or that way.'"

Bowman has been working with Phelps since before the swimmer hit puberty. He is the architect behind the success. Bowman draws up the plan, Phelps executes it. The coach refers to his training sessions as "deposits" that his swimmers can "withdraw" when they show up at a meet.

"This year with Michael, we've had pennies to withdraw," he said.

Bowman said he confronted Phelps about his commitment a few times, describing their conversations like this: "He wouldn't show up and I'd say, 'Where the f--- are you?' And he'd be equally urbane and intellectual, and then would miss two more weeks."

One of the problems is a newfound passion for golf, a sport Patrick sheepishly admits he introduced to Phelps when he took the swimmer to the Sparrows Point Golf Club in Baltimore more than a year ago.

"I'm guilty, but I'm not the one to blame," Patrick said. "The golf bug is the one to blame. He crushed a few drives, hit a couple good shots, and that was it. The golf bug can get anybody."

In Phelps' defense, it's not an Olympic year. It's not even a world championship year. Pan Pacs were the biggest meet on the schedule; but in the grand scheme of Phelps' career, his performance in California last week rates as a footnote at best.

"This year is a slow year and I've been able to find out a lot of things about myself, in and out of the pool," Phelps said. "I've been able to golf more, which probably isn't the best idea and option for me. I've been able to have fun and relax, and I've found out that I'm not as happy as I want to be with my swimming. But I know how to make it better."

Making a change

The desire to change began when Phelps visited the Vancouver Olympics back in February. Since then, Bowman said, Phelps has stopped missing workouts. Phelps even laughs about his wayward absences now. When asked this past week how his body responds to Bowman's rigorous training at the age of 25, Phelps and his coach had this exchange:

"I think the body holds up," Bowman said.

"When the body is there," Phelps interjected with a smile. "I need to make it to workouts on more of a consistent basis over the next two years. I think the biggest thing is the mind, like Bob said. I think I can do whatever I put my mind to."

In the same way that he handled the photo incident, Phelps has accepted full responsibility for his actions. There are no excuses; no blaming his coach or the media or the pressure society puts on him. It is his fault his fitness level is a self-described "four."

"When you have a meet where everything doesn't go you're way, it's not fun. It's frustrating. It's annoying," he said. "But if you're going to make the decisions that I've made, then you have to be able to pay for the consequences, and I've done that. Now it's time to change and start moving forward."

Even though Phelps didn't dominate his five events at Pan Pacs, there was plenty to build on. Phelps won four of his five events, including two relays. His time of 48.10 in the opening leg of the 4x100 freestyle relay was the fastest in the world this year. Even in the 400 IM, an event he hadn't participated in since Beijing, he swam the fourth-fastest time in qualifying.

Just as encouraging, Bowman said, was to watch Phelps at Pan Pacs and see him engaged in anything and everything around the meet. Phelps excitedly watched races he wasn't a part of. After his own swims, he would climb out of the water and immediately know what he did wrong. And he and Bowman were back to communicating without saying a word.

"He needed a little reality check," Bowman said. "Well, here it is. Even though you're the greatest ever, you still need to work. You can't just glide by."

Bowman believes that if Phelps dedicates himself, he can get back to being the best swimmer in the world in five or six months. But the work needs to start soon. After Pan Pacs, Phelps said he and a few friends were going to travel the West Coast and play golf. But come Sept. 7, the fun is scheduled to end. That afternoon, Bowman expects his star pupil to walk through the doors of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, put on his suit and get back to business with his sights set on next summer's world championships in Shanghai and the 2012 Games in London.

"I will be there, and a bunch of other people will be there," Bowman said. "As for Michael, I've learned to control my expectations so as to not be disappointed. So we'll have to wait and see. But I'm optimistic."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn.com.