The World Championships, which are held every two years and regarded as the biggest non-Olympic competition in swimming, begin Sunday morning in Shanghai, China, and once again, the world isn't sure what to expect from Phelps — other than he'll be competing in four individual events: the 200 meter freestyle, the 200 meter individual medley and the 100 and 200 meter butterfly.
Ryan Lochte, Phelps' American teammate and close friend, seems poised to grab that unofficial title this week.
''After last year and kind of messing around really for two years it's kind of hard to really tell where we stand," Phelps told reporters prior to the start of world championships.
But this isn't a new position for Phelps. Three previous times — in 2005, 2007 and 2009 — he faced real doubts about how well he would perform prior to worlds.
In 2005, they turned out to be warranted, as he failed to make the finals of the 400 meter freestyle and got whipped by Ian Crocker in the 100 meter butterfly. Phelps called the event a sobering wake up call, and said the races were the most frustrating of his career.
But in Melbourne in 2007, with much of the Australian media writing prior to the competition that Phelps would never surpass Ian Thorpe as an all-time great, Phelps stunned the world by winning seven gold medals and breaking four world records.
In Rome in 2009, he was still struggling a bit to move beyond the controversy of a photo that surfaced of him presumably smoking marijuana. Phelps also made the difficult decision to stand by his sponsor, Speedo, and refused to wear one the newest high tech swimsuits, a decision he knew would put him at a competitive disadvantage. When his Serbian rival Milorad Cavic broke Phelps' world record in the semifinals in the 100 meter butterfly, it seemed like Phelps' reign as the king of the pool was about to end. But he again rose to the occasion and became the first person to break the 50 second barrier in the event, recapturing the world record with a time of 49.82.
Which version of Phelps will show up this week? It's hard to say. He hasn't looked great in competition this year at minor swim meets, including suffering a loss in the 200 meter butterfly for the first time since 2002. Prior to rededicating himself eight months ago, he says he was probably in the worst shape of his life.
''I felt that you had to twist my arm to get me to go to the pool," Phelps told reporters prior to the start of the championship. "I felt like I was kicking and screaming, not wanting to go to the pool.''
Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, said there were times when he doubted Phelps would ever regain his desire to train obsessively again. But he came to the conclusion that Phelps was too old to have his coach demand he show up at the pool for daily practice, so Bowman let him work through some things. Some weeks, Phelps would barely show up at all.
Eventually, though, Phelps came around. "I can't stand to lose, so I figured I had to change something," he said.
He agreed to take several trips to Colorado to train in solitude at high altitude, and eventually, the fire returned.
"I needed to get out of that funk when I did because if I didn't I think it would have been too late,'' Phelps said. ''It's funny, all you have to do is go to work out and work hard and everything shows up. It's that easy. To think I didn't do it for really two years and I was wondering why I wasn't swimming very fast [is funny]."
Bowman said recently it's a different role for Phelps to play — going into a meet where he's not even the favorite — but that's not a bad thing.
"We're kind of like where we were eight years ago or 10 years ago," Bowman said. "But as we get closer and closer to next summer, the more he starts to wake up. And really, who can blame him? How man Grand Prixs can you swim in? How man practices can you do? Could he have done better the last two years? Well, yeah. But it's a very long time to go to always be [at the top of the sport]. I think he's really excited for Shanghai. I was happy to let him come down a little bit so we could then work up again."