LONDON (Reuters) - Michael Phelps was given the full rock star treatment when he arrived for his first formal news conference at the London Olympics on Thursday.
The main auditorium at the media centre was packed to overflowing as the American drew more inquisitors than even International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge.
Clean shaven and with a stylish new haircut after looking like a rescued hiker the previous day, Phelps wisecracked his way through a 30-minute cross examination by the world’s media.
The 27-year-old could not have been any more relaxed as he answered questions about everything from his prospects at the London Games to the secrets of his success.
“It’s hard to compare myself now to then (the 2008 Olympics). The goals are different,” he said.
“Going into Beijing we were trying to conquer everything. I have only dropped one event but we have been a lot more relaxed for the last four years and we are having fun.”
Grilled about his expectations after reducing his number of events in London from eight to seven, Phelps stuck rigidly to his mantra that he was taking it one race at a time.
While the sporting world remains in awe of his giant stockpile of gold medals, Phelps’ usual response to questions about his prospects are made ad nauseum, usually in a failed attempt to deflect some of the hype.
“As someone said to me recently, how many toppings do I want on my sundae?” he said.
“You guys (the media) are the ones that keep bringing up the medal count. I have never once in my career brought up medal counts.”
With retirement looming when he finishes his final event in London, Phelps was unusually animated on Thursday, clowning around and telling anecdotes about his life in the Olympic Village.
“I walked out of the cafeteria this morning and I walked past three Russian female athletes who were all taller than me,” said the 1.93 meter (6ft 4in) Phelps.
“I was like, man, I thought I was tall! It’s cool to experience all of that.”
Phelps has vowed to try and enjoy himself at his final Olympics, soaking up the atmosphere and spending more times engaging with other athletes.
But his laid back approach does not mean that he is any less motivated and he said the trick was finding a balance.
“It will be very challenging. That is why I have been kind of sitting around,” he said.
“I have been able to learn how to contain it a little bit. I won’t be holding back when I am in the venue but when I am away from it, I am trying to control it as best I can.”
With 14 gold medals already on his resume, Phelps stands alone in the Olympic pantheon of greats and gets treated differently to other athletes, even his own team mates.
While Phelps was joined by his coach Bob Bowman for the news conference, other members of the star-studded American team, including the head coaches, waited patiently for him to finish before they held a separate, all-in conference.
His team mates said they were unfazed by the extra attention Phelps receives and welcomed the opportunity to have a separate session with the media.
The only time Phelps bristled was when he was quizzed about comments from team mate Tyler Clary, who recently said Phelps’ success was more to do with natural talent than hard work.
“People can say and do whatever they want. That’s fine. I’ve gotten to where I am today by working hard,” Phelps said.
“Tyler said it was taken out of context and he apologized the next day. I said to him he doesn’t need to say anything.”
Editing by Ken Ferris