-- The young prince of swimming strolled into the main Olympic pool here at 9:24 a.m. Wednesday in a white sleeveless T-shirt, red surf shorts and a pair of dark wraparound sunglasses.
He was wearing a red and blue backpack, and were it not for the figure of his coach walking closely and seriously behind him in a blue shirt and baseball cap, he might not have been noticed so quickly.
But here, in "the place where the fastest swimmers come," as the prince called it, word spread among those who had gathered for a glimpse: Michael Phelps was here. There was some scrambling for position among the cameramen and TV crews. "He's putting on his suit!" said a member of one TV team, pulling out a pocket camera. "I love it."
And a BBC reporter castigated an aide as Phelps dived in for the morning practice: "Keep filming!"
The 19-year-old from Baltimore County was oblivious. He looked as relaxed as if he was walking into a backyard barbecue. And his debut before the world news media 48 hours before the start of the Games he is expected to dominate was that of a guy who had showed up for work.
"I'm here to swim," he said. "We're here to do a job, and the job is to get in the water and swim as fast as we can."
Phelps was also humble, gracious, diplomatic, patriotic and optimistic. "All opportunities are endless," he said when asked about his chances in one tough event. He even drew a laugh from the media assembled in the 1,000-plus seat news conference amphitheater when he recovered from a stumble in grammar.
He said it was great to be in Athens, where last-minute preparations for the opening of the Games on Friday still are underway. He said the pool, where workmen still were applying putty to railings and fixing broken seats, was terrific.
And as to those gold medals -- seven or eight, or whatever -- all he really wanted was one. "How many people in the world have one Olympic gold medal?" he said.
But Phelps is shooting for more than one. He plans to swim in five individual events, something no American has ever done, and hopes to participate in all three relays. "He's on a mission," said David Salo, an assistant coach on the U.S. men's team.
Salo and head coach Eddie Reese said Wednesday that the lineups for the preliminaries and finals of the relays -- the 400-meter freestyle, the 400 medley, and the 800 freestyle -- are incomplete. Those who have the best times as the relays approach will race in the finals. But even those who compete in the preliminaries will earn gold medals if the U.S. team wins.
Phelps could theoretically win eight gold medals, which would set a record for the most such medals ever won at an Olympics. He has a better chance at winning seven, which would tie the gold medal record set by Mark Spitz at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
Seven gold medals would also earn him a $1 million bonus that is being offered by the swimsuit company that is his chief sponsor.
Phelps said Wednesday that he does not plan to attend Friday night's Opening Ceremonies because his quest begins at 10 a.m. local time Saturday, in the preliminaries of the men's 400 individual medley.
The 400 IM is one of three events in which Phelps holds the world record; the others are the 200 IM and the 200 butterfly. Phelps also plans to swim the 100 butterfly, where his chief opponent is expected to be teammate Ian Crocker, who holds the world record; and the 200 freestyle, where Australian giant Ian Thorpe holds the world record.
Phelps eagerly sought the matchup with Thorpe when he was tailoring his Olympic program during last month's U.S. trials. He said he had always dreamed of racing Thorpe, and believed that the race could be one of the greatest ever.
The imperial Thorpe, an Olympic champion who has god-like status in his country, was dismissive of the race, speaking at a packed news conference Tuesday, saying the faceoff seemed overblown.
But the prince took scant notice Wednesday. He was busy courting his subjects.
On Athens: "Being back here where it all started, I mean, wow."
On Greece: "It's a great country to be in, and they're doing an excellent job."
On swimming for the U.S.: "Whenever you get a chance to wear . . . the stars and stripes, it makes it that much more fun."
Even the Australians were dipped in affection. "This is the Olympics," Phelps said of them, and other opponents, "and the people who have made it here are the best swimmers in the world."