The most decorated of Olympians enters the room without fanfare. Wearing a black cap tucked low, he quickly sits with his legs crossed, feet peeking out from underneath a "USA Swimming" tablecloth, as he shifts in a sagging plastic chair.
He has done this drill many times before.
For 20 minutes Tuesday, he answers questions about his future during a news conference. Seven other swimmers will sit in the same seat, and most will be asked him.
Even when surrounded by the nation's best swimmers — several of them Olympic medalists themselves — Michael Phelps still stands out.
He announced his retirement after the 2012 Olympics but said in April he would return. Now Phelps is in Irvine to compete in the USA Swimming national championships, which run Wednesday through Sunday at the William Woollett Jr. Aquatics Center.
It's Phelps' biggest meet since the London Games. He had more than a year off and his coach, Bob Bowman, said this week will determine what happens next. On the horizon are the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
More than 1,000 swimmers will compete in Irvine. Some are still in high school and relatively unknown, but the field also includes more than 30 members of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team.
Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky are the two best female swimmers in the country. Ryan Lochte, coming off a knee injury, is the best-known American swimmer not named Phelps. Nathan Adrian is a three-time Olympic gold medal winner. Natalie Coughlin is tied for the most Olympic medals all-time for an American woman.
But the biggest name, the biggest draw, remains Phelps. Franklin was at nationals last year when Phelps didn't compete and there was a noticeable difference.
"Michael obviously brings so much to swimming," Franklin said. "He's brought so much publicity, so much attention to how amazing this sport is."
Phelps, 29, said his return to swimming didn't start as a comeback. After spending months playing a lot of bad golf and eating whatever he wanted, Phelps decided to just splash around a bit in the pool. Splashing around for Phelps was still swimming 1,000 to 1,500 meters, but it was relaxing nonetheless.
In the past, there were times Bowman practically dragged Phelps into the pool. Phelps would blow off text messages, responding only when Bowman pushed enough buttons. Leading up to the London Games, training sessions felt like battles.
So when Phelps told Bowman he was thinking of a comeback, Bowman remembers saying, "There is no way you should do this." Bowman explained: "He was so unhappy going into London."
With the time away, something changed.
"I haven't seen any of that now, so it's good," Bowman said. "I support it."
Phelps got back to training and shed 30 pounds. He stopped eating red meat for six months, just to see what would happen. He also began to enjoy the water and training again.
"He's been so laid-back, so happy," said Allison Schmitt, an Olympian who trains with Phelps and Bowman in Baltimore. "I'll walk into practice, and just his presence, whether it be on the deck or in the pool, it's just great to have him back and see him so happy around the pool."
Phelps is scheduled to compete in the 100-meter freestyle, the 100 butterfly, the 100 backstroke and the 200 individual medley. He will not swim his signature race, the 200 butterfly, because he is still not in top shape.
"That race requires certain things we haven't done for like six years," Bowman said.
In the prelims, Phelps will be racing against kids who have idolized him. Adrian, who is also competing in the 100 freestyle, raced against Phelps in 2008 as a 20-year old and remembers what that felt like.
"You get a little star struck," Adrian said. "You get a little thrown off, and I went slower than I did the rest of the meet."
In full strength or in comeback mode, Phelps remains the draw in U.S. swimming. As he stands to leave the podium, Phelps takes one more question: Does he have any unfinished business?
The 18-time Olympic gold medal winner laughs and says, "There are always things I still want to do and still want to achieve, and that's part of the reason I'm still here. You're not going to get what it is."
Twitter: @everettcookCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times