The greatest swimmer in history will take to Olympic blocks for one more global splash, a final gold-medal rush, the closing chapter to his unparalleled legacy.
Michael Phelps -- winner of a record 14 Olympic gold medals, including an unprecedented eight at the 2008 Beijing Games -- needs but three more medals of any variety to become the most decorated Olympian of all time in any sport.
"I have always wanted to be the first person to achieve something," said the 27-year-old Phelps, expected to swim seven events at the London Games in his quest to surpass the 18 medals Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina achieved between the 1956 and 1964 Olympics.
"We all want to be the best we can be and we want to win; that's just how we are."
Perhaps no other Olympic sport embodies The American Way better than swimming, where the USA leads the all-time global medal count with 489 -- more than the next five countries combined.
Phelps' friendly rivalry with the colorful and gifted Ryan Lochte has buoyed swimming's stateside popularity while creating a healthy ripple of competition within team waters.
Phelps and Lochte are each swimming four individual events and will go head-to-head in the much-anticipated 200- and 400-meter individual medleys.
Lochte threw down the gauntlet at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in Omaha, Neb., in June, pronouncing that it's his time in the sport.
"In 2008, Michael Phelps set the limit, eight world records, eight gold medals, that's amazing," said Lochte, who won five gold medals at the 2011 FINA World Championships. "But he's human; he's not a fish or anything like that.
"This is going to be one of the biggest rivalries ever ... in the Olympics, it's probably going to be the biggest talk."
The hottest topic in the U.S. Olympic men's team locker room has been the 4 x 100 freestyle relay, where the Americans find themselves in the unusual position of underdog.
U.S. Swimming Team Director Frank Busch, a grizzled, no-nonsense sort of leader, will find himself in the thankless position of weighing experience against performance when selecting a team that, heading in, is not projected to beat Australia based on times over the past year.
Phelps dropped out of the 200 freestyle, in part, to be more prepared to contribute to Team USA's relay hopes.
"We have stars in our sport, and this Olympics team is the best of the best," Busch said. "But I would never make a prediction as far as results. Twenty-eight of our 49 swimmers are (Olympic) rookies."
Among the newcomers is 17-year-old Missy Franklin, a Colorado high-schooler who looks to make U.S. Olympic women's swimming history when she becomes the first to enter seven events in one Olympic setting.
Franklin, as bubbly and energetic as one might expect of a teenager, shows no signs of being anchored down by the daunting challenge before her.
"The only expectations that matter to me are those of my friends and family, and they have told me I've already won in their hearts," said Franklin, who's expected to utilize her 6-foot-1 frame, 76-inch wingspan and size-13 feet in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke, the 100 and 200 freestyle, and all three relays. "Multiple veterans on the team have given me the advice to just enjoy this."
One of those veterans is three-time Olympian and U.S. women's team co-captain Natalie Coughlin.
"When you have multiple events, you learn to take them one at a time," said Coughlin, an 11-time medalist. "In some ways it's easier at that age; you don't have the pressure to perform for financial obligations. When you are younger, there's a wonderful freshness."
For all of the newness of this year's team, Coughlin expects the same type of domination.
"I think this is the strongest team I've been a part of," Coughlin said. "There are a lot of first-time Olympians, but you're going to see some great performances."
(Mike Griffith, a sports writer for The News Sentinel in Knoxville, Tenn., is a member of a team of Scripps journalists covering the London Games. Contact Griffith at griffithm(at)knoxnews.com.)
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