In those very public yet somehow private moments with his mom at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Michael Phelps counted down his eight seminal swimming races.
During each victory lap around the Water Cube pool deck, he would find Debbie Phelps in the stands, hand her his medal-stand flower bouquet, lean in to give her a hug, then whisper in her ear, "Seven more to go," "Six more," "Five more," on down to history.
2012 London Olympics coverage
He never spoke publicly of the eight gold medals until they were all in hand. He offered insights on such things as his starts and turns but very little on the mini-series of surpassing greatness in which he was starring.
Yet just as the world knew it was watching history in the making -- the first athlete to win eight golds in one Olympics -- Phelps obviously realized he was making it, too.
"Yes, I have been able to rewrite history a little bit," Phelps told USA TODAY Sports recently, "and do some things that people have never done before. That's something that from Day 1, I always wanted to do."
Photos: Olympic Swimming Trials on NBC
The medals, though, are merely a measure of his place in the record books. They are not his focus, even as Phelps, 27, heads to the London Olympics, ready to pass another medal milestone.
"It's not about medals for Michael," his mom says. "It's about the sense of accomplishment."
He needs three medals, of any color, to become the most decorated Olympian in history. In what he says will be his last Games, he plans to swim in seven events -- four individual and three relays.
Golds will be harder for him to win than in 2008, with competitors such as U.S. teammate Ryan Lochte rising, and the U.S. men less dominant in the relays.
"When I'm finished in London, hopefully, if I can look back on my career and say I've done everything I've wanted to do -- with putting the medals, the records and this and that aside -- if I can say I'm happy, that's all that matters," Phelps says.
He is back to happy after briefly considering retirement in 2009, smarting from the scrutiny he got after a photo surfaced of him with a marijuana bong. At competitions in 2010 and 2011, he lost almost as consistently as he had once won.
Only in the last 11 months, after he lost to Lochte in their two head-to-head races at last year's world championships, did Phelps' dedication to training approach pre-2008 levels. At last month's Olympic trials, Phelps won three races to Lochte's one in their matchups.
"I think he's more focused to prove something -- that he's not done and he's not just kind of floating through this Olympics and seeing what type of medals will come," says Phelps' trainer, Keenan Robinson. "The portrayal is that he doesn't care as much. But I see him a little bit more focused."
Phelps does not offer specifics on his goals for London, other than to emphasize that he's not in it just for the hardware.
"He still has some things in his individual events he wants to accomplish," says Bob Bowman, his longtime coach. "Most importantly, he wants to raise the profile of swimming. And he knows by swimming in London and swimming well, that he'll continue to do that."
Phelps claims he did not know, until interviewers began asking him in the last year, that Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina held the all-time Olympic record with 18 medals, won in four Olympics through 1964. Phelps has 16, including six gold and two bronze from the 2004 Games.
His mom did not know about Latynina, either, until she saw footage of Phelps meeting the gymnast, in a 60 Minutes piece that aired this spring.
"I did not know who had the most medals. I did not sit and calculate," she says. "Did Michael sit and figure that out? I would say no."
Even when he was teenager, when he used winnings to get specialty rims for the used Cadillac Escalade his mom allowed him to buy, Phelps wasn't in it just for the bling. His vision then seemed beyond his age and beyond the reach even of his paranormal wingspan.
The first time his agent, Peter Carlisle of Octagon, met him, he asked Phelps what he wanted to do in swimming outside of the pool. The 16-year-old Phelps, who through most of the meeting had been silent, looked directly at Carlisle and said, "I want to change the sport of swimming."
Says Bowman, who was in the meeting: "At the time, I thought, 'I'm not so sure about that one.'"
Phelps wanted it to be a sport his friends knew and respected as much as football. He wanted his teachers and classmates at Towson (Md.) High School to know what it meant that at 15 he had set a world record. He wanted it to be as cool to have swim practice before school as it was to have basketball practice after.
He wanted, he told Carlisle, to see swimming on SportsCenter.
"He had a chip on his shoulder, which I think is great," Carlisle says. "I think that's what drives him."
The chip was such that at one point, Phelps told his mom he wanted to try another sport.
She didn't outright reject the notion, but she did remind him that swimming had put him on a global stage and could be a years-long pursuit that would take him to multiple Olympics -- opportunities that high school sports likely wouldn't open for him.
"He wanted to be like his buddies," says his mom, a principal at Windsor Mill Middle School in Baltimore. "They were transitioning from middle to high school. That transition is very hard for children. They want to go into high school and they want to be accepted."
Phelps stuck with swimming. He signed with Carlisle. He got an endorsement deal with Speedo, which offered him a $1 million bonus if he matched Mark Spitz's 1972 Olympic record of seven gold medals at one Games.
The hype of that possibility put him on magazine covers and, yes, on SportsCenter, leading into the 2004 Olympics.
Phelps never made any bold medal predictions. His public mantra was that he wanted to win one gold.
He won six. The bronze medals came in the 200-meter freestyle and 4x100-meter freestyle relay.
Phelps didn't get the $1 million, but swimming did get a bump from the publicity surrounding his pursuit. USA Swimming membership grew 7.2% in 2005, up from a 4.9% increase the year after the 2000 Games.
By the 2007 world championships, Phelps seemingly had no peers. He won all his individual races at worlds, some by body lengths, and came up short of eight golds only because the U.S. men defaulted in a relay.
The story line was set for Beijing. As events there unfolded, as Phelps counted down each race with his mom, the spotlight on swimming grew brighter.
"He broke barriers and walls for us that I don't think any other athlete could have ever done," two-time Olympic swimming relay champion Brendan Hansen says. "When he won those eight gold medals in Beijing, he put swimming in superstar status."
NBC broadcast the 2008 Olympics finals live in prime time on the East Coast, and Phelps and his U.S. teammates provided daily drama, with such feats as Jason Lezak's superhuman anchor leg in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay and Phelps' by-a-fingernail finish in the 100-meter butterfly.
Swimming is now the No. 1 Summer Olympics sport in the USA, displacing track and field and overshadowing gymnastics.
The upshot of Phelps' success: The television ratings for the recent U.S. Olympic swim trials were up 91% from four years earlier.
"That's nothing (added in promotion or marketing) we've done," Carlisle says. "It's eight gold medals, viewed at the right time by the whole world. You can't manufacture it."
Phelps, of course, did get his $1 million bonus after Beijing. He used it to establish the Michael Phelps Foundation, which provides swim programs at Boys & Girls Clubs nationwide as well as funding for up-and-coming swimmers. He will devote more time to the foundation and the swim programs post-London, as well as travel and maybe even a little golf.
"Competitively, it's hard to put a number on it, but a lot has been accomplished," Phelps says of the percentage of his career goals he has reached. "But outside of the pool, it's more up in the air. Obviously, it's going to take time for me to accomplish everything with my foundation and my swimming schools."
Phelps has said for years he wouldn't swim in an Olympics past 30. Bowman is convinced he's finished after London.
"We've come as far as we can go in this," Bowman says.
Others are not so sure this is the last lap.
"I wouldn't be surprised if he came back in '16," says Cathy Bennett, Phelps' first swim teacher at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, where he still trains, and a close family friend.
Says Carlisle: "If the sport starts to fade in relevance from the general public, that competitive switch could be turned back on, and what does he do? That's where it could get really interesting."
For now, Phelps will stir interest anew with his march to the all-time medal mark in London. Perhaps he will share another countdown with his mom.
But the medals themselves likely will end up like the others, in no special place.
He has lost one from 2004. His mom had not seen them all together until this spring, when he returned from a media interview with them in a backpack.
He laid them out on her kitchen counter to show his 6-year-old niece, Taylor, who pointed out one that was "dirty."
"That's a bronze medal," Phelps told her.
Then he packed them away, and they ate lunch.
By Vicki Michaelis
Special for USA TODAY