'There was no turning back': Phelps on his fourth shot at Olympic gold

TODAY

Matt Lauer sits down with multiple medal-winning American swimmer Michael Phelps to discuss his preparations for London.

When all the cheering finally stopped after his record haul of eight gold medals in Beijing in 2008, superstar swimmer Michael Phelps soon endured the downside of Olympic fame.

Out of shape, practicing intermittently, and caught smoking out of a bong in an infamous picture splashed across the national media, Phelps, 27, called it the hardest four years of his life.

“You’re so up on this big competitive level, and you’re at this peak,’’ Phelps told Matt Lauer in an interview that aired on TODAY Tuesday. “And then you just kind of roll down the hill.’’

Phelps is now in the midst of qualifying for his fourth and what he says will be his final Olympics. On Monday night, Phelps finished second behind rival Ryan Lochte in the 400-meter individual medley at the U.S. Olympic trials to qualify for London in that event as he seeks to add to his record total of 14 career gold medals. The two will resume their rivalry Tuesday night as the trials continue.

Jamie Squire / Getty Images

Michael Phelps after he finished second in the championship final heat of the Men's 400 m Individual Medley at the 2012 US Olympic Swimming Team Trials at CenturyLink Center on Monday.

To even get himself back into shape to compete with the world’s best took a while for Phelps after the euphoria of Beijing, where he bested the previous record of seven gold medals set by Mark Spitz in 1972.

“I literally didn’t do anything for six months (after Beijing),’’ Phelps said. “I would come for like a week or two straight, and then I would just take two or three weeks off.’’

Given his record-breaking accomplishments, Phelps could certainly have called it a career after his 2008 performance, but chose to take one last shot at Olympic glory.

“I had made that commitment to go another four years, and there was no turning back at that point,’’ he said.

In 2009, Phelps went through the public embarrassment of a picture surfacing of him smoking from a bong at a party.

“I think the worst thing was just I hurt so many people around me,’’ he said. “I'll be the first to admit I made a lot of stupid mistakes in my life. It was a huge learning experience. I've had a lot of those through my career, and they've all made me a better person.’’

Phelps’ struggle with fame and motivation after his achievements in Beijing also lead to speculation of whether another letdown period will occur when his Olympic career comes to an end in London.

Jamie Squire / Getty Images

Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps greet each other after they competed in the 2012 US Olympic Swimming Team Trials Monday.

“I don’t want to say there's no shot, but I don’t think it’s going to be anywhere (near) the level I’ve gone through,’’ Phelps said. “I've been through tons of ups and downs in my career, and kind of being able to come to a closure in my career, I just don't see it happening.’’

Despite his struggles in the last three years to beat Lochte, whom he once routinely defeated, Phelps says this is the most relaxed he’s ever been in the four Olympics in which he has competed. His own coach, Bob Bowman, admits that the volume of training that Phelps has done does not approach his training for Beijing.

“I think if you ask me today, ‘Is he prepared to be as good a swimmer as he was in Beijing?’ I would have to say no because we haven't done the volume of training,’’ Bowman told NBC News. “If you ask me, ‘Has he prepared to be a better person than he was in Beijing?’ Without question. He's in a much better place in his life, and he's just more grown up.”

“Leading into 2000, '04 and '08, we were focused on doing a ton of volume,’’ Phelps said. “But it's not about going out and swimming 15 events. It's about going out and capping off a career.’’

Michael Phelps' adopted dog will learn to swim just like him

Phelps is making sure to stop and smell the roses this time. He is keeping a journal, which he said is unusual for him. With three more medals in London, he would become the most decorated Olympian of all time.

“Being able to look back at all the memories I have, I feel like it’s better if I just write them down,’’ he said. “I just found that if I'm having a bad day, I just open up my journal and write down the feelings that I have, and I feel a lot more relieved and relaxed afterwards.’’

Whatever happens in London, Phelps is ready to deal with the end of a legendary career.

“I don't care what anybody else says,’’ he said. “If I can say my life or my career has been a success, that's all that matters to me.’’

Scott Stump is a TODAY.com contributor who once took six months off after swimming 10 laps at the local YMCA pool. 

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