For his trip to Greece, Michael Phelps has stored in his cell phone a snapshot of his car and one of his cat. He's got the number at Pete's Grille, if he wants to call his pals back in Baltimore. And he's got an iPod full of rap tunes, fit for any occasion.
Along with his talent, dedication and preparation, Maryland's 19-year-old swimming sensation has brought simple mementos from home this week as he takes the world stage in Athens, attempting to make Olympic history.
Starting Saturday, the first day of swimming competition at the 2004 Games, Phelps will stand before princes and kings, a former U.S. president and millions around the globe to begin his assault on a record that has stood for 32 years.
Phelps, who lives near Towson, in Baltimore County, has a shot at winning eight Olympic gold medals -- something that has never been done -- and a decent chance at winning seven, which has been accomplished once.
Seven gold medals would tie him with legendary swimmer Mark Spitz, now 54, who set the record in 1972 in Munich, and who will be watching in Athens.
But when the versatile 6-foot-4 Phelps takes to the starting block Saturday, with his goggles cinched and his ears tucked under his racing cap, he will also seek to divert the world, and the Olympics, from the worries of a troubled time.
With Athens ringed by anti-aircraft missiles, and the talk of terrorism and athletes' drug abuse in the wind, Phelps's quest has become an old-fashioned, high-stakes sports thriller.
Forget basketball's tattered Olympic dream team, says Auburn University swimming coach David Marsh, "Michael is the talk of the Games."
One reason is that the lanky, hometown kid in flip-flops and baseball cap, already a multimillionaire via endorsement deals, has been promised another $1 million by the swimwear company that sponsors him if he matches Spitz's record.
Phelps said the hoopla doesn't bother him: "If you swim fast in the water, it comes with it." Nor does the possibility of a hostile reception from international fans.
"Not everybody in this world loves America," he said. "But we have a pride and when we step up on the block and have the red, white and blue on, that's all that matters. . . . We're going to go out and compete at our best, and if we do that I think we'll all be happy."
But success is far from certain.
Phelps faces potent opposition in a brace of speedy Australians, a freestyle rocket from the Netherlands and a teammate from Maine who is a cerebral practitioner of the butterfly.
If things go awry, Phelps could walk away with five, or even four gold medals -- missing the jackpot, but coming home with a still impressive Olympic achievement.
And Phelps is not the only competitor in Athens. The men's swimming team is believed to be the best since the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, where the U.S. men won every gold medal in swimming but one.
Plus, badminton, basketball, diving, fencing, judo, sailing, softball, weightlifting and other competitions also start Saturday. Soccer begins on Wednesday, two days before the Opening Ceremonies.
Women's wrestling makes its Olympic debut this year. There's a 17-year-old Alabama trap shooter who's blind in one eye and has a poster of Annie Oakley in her bedroom, and an Oklahoma weightlifter who grew up heaving watermelons into the back of a farm truck.
But the undisputed star is swimming's Iron Horse.
Phelps is the youngest of the three children of a divorced couple from suburban Baltimore. His father, Fred, is a retired Maryland State Police sergeant. His mother, Debbie, is a school teacher and administrator in the Baltimore County school system.
Phelps grew up poolside, with sisters Hilary, 26, and Whitney, 24, who also were excellent competitive swimmers. Whitney nearly made the U.S. Olympic team in 1996.
His parents and sisters plan to be in Athens.
As an 11-year-old at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, in the city's Mount Washington neighborhood, Phelps came under the guidance of an intense young coach named Bob Bowman, who recognized Phelps's potential and has guided his career ever since.
At 15, Phelps became the youngest male U.S. Olympian in more than 60 years when he made the team in 2000. He became the youngest male swimmer to set a world record a year later. Last summer, he set five in one meet. He currently holds three, one of which he set last month at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Long Beach, Calif.
Phelps appeared on corporate America's radar in the fall of 2001, when he signed his first contract with Speedo.
He has since landed lucrative deals pitching mortgages, credit cards, cell phones, watches and energy bars, as well as $300 swimsuits.
He has also promoted, for free, Pete's Grille, the gritty Baltimore restaurant where he eats breakfast, and which he has made nationally famous.
Phelps already has earned millions: He drives a loaded Cadillac Escalade, and two years ago he gave his mother a Mercedes-Benz for Christmas. His handlers say, financially, he won't miss the Speedo bonus if he comes up short on gold medals.
Phelps is entered in five individual events, and hopes to swim three relays. No other American has ever competed in five individual Olympic events.
With heats, semifinals and finals, he could race 17 times over eight days, including three times a day on Aug. 15, 16 and 19, and twice within about 20 minutes the night of Aug. 19.
"One of the biggest things is going to be having one race after another after another, back to back to back," Phelps said. "And it's going to be racing [against] the best people in the world. So I'm going to have to be both physically and mentally ready for that."
"It's something that we've trained for and something we've prepared for," he said. "Going into that, that's what I'm going to think. I'm going to take one event at a time and hope for the best."
Phelps plans to swim both the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys, as well as the 200 butterfly, the events in which he holds the world record and is favored to win.
A recent injury to one of his chief competitors in the grueling 400 IM -- the first swimming event in the Games -- could ease his way over all eight days. All four strokes are used in the medley events.
He also plans to swim the 100 butterfly and 200 freestyle. His U.S. teammate, Ian Crocker, holds the world record in the 100 butterfly. Australia's Ian Thorpe holds the record in the 200 freestyle.
Crocker and Thorpe are favored in most forecasts. In addition, Phelps will probably face Australia's Grant Hackett and defending Olympic champion Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands in the 200 freestyle.
Phelps has had Crocker in his crosshairs since losing to him in the 100 butterfly last summer. But the mild-mannered Maine native is a specialist, a fast starter and an excellent technician. He beat Phelps cleanly at the U.S. Olympic trials last month, setting a world record in the process.
Phelps is also likely to swim either the preliminary or the final of the 400 and 800 freestyle relays and the 400 medley relay.
Although the final is more prestigious, and it is the final winners who go to the awards stand, Phelps would get a gold medal either way if the Americans win. But the U.S. strategy on relay participation is in flux and the entries are not due until an hour before each race.
The United States is favored in the 400 medley relay, which it has never lost in the Olympics. Australia holds the world record and is favored in the 800 freestyle relay. The 400 freestyle relay is a tossup, with the United States, Australia, Russia, South Africa and Italy all in the mix. One veteran coach said other countries will have to falter for the United States to win the 400 freestyle relay.
"There's a great sense of anticipation," said Bowman, Phelps's coach. "I think he's well prepared. . . . I think he's very relaxed and ready to do what he needs to do."
Now Phelps and Bowman, who also is an assistant coach on the Olympic swimming team, are about to step into the international spotlight.
"It's as big as it gets on the biggest stage," said Marsh, the Auburn coach. "It's the largest international stage in sport by dramatic numbers."
"I commend him for putting his quest on the line," Marsh said, and for putting the sport back where it was during the days of Mark Spitz.
Spitz, for his part, said he remains intrigued by Phelps's endeavor.
He said Phelps, at first glance, looks like any world-class swimmer. "He's got the same body profile that most of the guys that are world record holders have today," Spitz said.
But Phelps has "great mental management of his physical skills," he said. "That's what it boils down to. Being able to produce and perform when the chips are down and the gun goes off."
Spitz questioned Phelps's decision last month to drop the 200 backstroke from his program, in favor of the 200 freestyle, where he is almost two seconds off the world record in the event.
"But, on the other hand, he's 19 years old, and guess what?" Spitz said. "When I was 19 and 20 I dropped my times by a second or two. And that's what I see in that guy. That's what I see in Michael Phelps. I see him becoming even stronger by the time he's in the next Olympic games at the age of 23."
And if Phelps should fall short in Athens, Spitz said, it may be in Beijing in four years "where you're going to see this galloping into the history books for him. . . . He's going to do great now. I think he's going to do even better next time."
Speedo's million-dollar bonus, incidentally, extends through 2008.