Will it be a Spitzean seven? Will it be eight? 'You guys are the ones who are talking all about it,' said Michael Phelps through a moustache and beard that face certain extinction on the eve of racing here at the Games in Beijing.
'I'm not saying anything. I'm just going through what I have to do. I'm preparing myself the best way I can to compete as fast as I can,' added Superfish. 'That's my goal and that's what I'm going to stick with. I haven't said anything about breaking any record or going after any record. I'm just going out there and trying to do something that I want to do, and my goals haven't been published, and Bob and I are the only two who know them, and we're going to work through this next week and a half and hopefully try to accomplish our goals.'
It would be an odd thing to think that those goals were times that added up to a couple of silvers and bronzes. Phelps and Bowman know where their goals fit alongside the capabilities of rivals, where they place on the charts and just off them. Winner of five golds and a relay heats gold in Athens 2004, the Baltimore Bullet is ready to fire.
'I like challenges. I think when I make my goals they are all challenges and I think that I rise to the occasion of challenges at times and I'm excited to have the opportunity to hopefully do that here. Growing up, even though breaststroke was my worst stroke, I was still swimming that event. In 2004 [Games] the 200m free. I knew it wasn't going to be an easy race. I knew it was going to be a very, very tough race to win, but I didn't care, I wanted to swim it, I wanted to race in it and that's what I did and I felt successful being able to do a best time and being only a few tenths outside a gold medal.'
Ian Thorpe (AUS) and Pieter van den Hoogenband (NED) were ahead of him then. Thorpe is gone, an inspirational dinner guest at the table of the Aussie team tonight, while Hoogie is out of the 200m after a Belgian medical expert suggested that his 'great form for sprinting' might be affected by any attempt to turn the clock back to the days when the Dutchman was capable of beating Thorpey. The sprint is the one that could deliver to Hoogie that first male entry into the triple crown club with Fraser and Egerszegi.
Phelps may not wish to admit to wanting to be the greatest ever but the eyes of the world regard him in that light. In Athens, he claimed five golds outright, one as a helper in the medley relay and achieved the best medal tally ever seen in the pool (and equal to the Olympic record) with bronze medals in that 200m free and the 4x100m free relay.
Melbourne 2007 produced seven golds and a missed opportunity, delivered by a DQ for Ian Crocker in the medley relay heats. It was almost the perfect rehearsal for what may unfold over the coming nine days of racing at the Watercube from Saturday evening. Bowman says that his charge is ready to achieve his goals and is a better athlete than he was in 2004. 'I think physically he's just much stronger and more mature, so he's got a lot more power and still has the fitness,' said Bowman. 'And emotionally he's much the same guy, he handles challenges really well, he wants to do well in his races and he has his own goals he's concerned about. The biggest advantage he has now is he's been through the process before so he knows what to expect and he's handled all the other things that come with the Olympic Games better.'
Phelps does not look like a man with the weight of expectation on his shoulders. That comes out of having practiced the moments he will take step by step, event by event. The work is done, here comes the fun, is the approach of those who have put the smart work in, those who relish the harvest.
'I'm just here enjoying myself. It's fun for us to be here. Not everybody gets this opportunity,' said Phelps, for whom the support of Team USA is a key ingredient in the soup of his success. Asked whether he had contemplated a move from the Athletes' Village to a five-star hotel that would better suit a superstar, he replied: 'No never. We have six in our apartment and it's fun. Since I never experienced the college dorm room, this is like my dorm room situation, just beds and all of us sharing small quarters, it's fun. Yesterday we sat around and played card games all day. It's low key, relaxing.'
The calm before the perfect storm, perhaps. And here's how that storm might unfold, in text form below and in graphic form :
Sunday August 10
Gold Target No1: 400m individual medley
Olympic champion 2004: 4:08.26 world record
World champion 2007: 4:06.22 world record
World record holder 4:05.25 2008
This would be Olympic career gold number 7 for Phelps, who won six crowns in Athens, 2004. He also won two bronzes in 2004, so this would be overall medal No9.
Monday August 11
Gold Target No 2: 4x100m freestyle
Status (with Team USA):
World Champions: USA 3:12.72
World record holders: 3:12.46
Career gold No8 would leave Phelps one gold medal shy of the all-time Olympic record title tally. Overall, Phelps would now have 10 Olympic medals
Tuesday August 12
Gold Target No 3: 200m freestyle
Olympic bronze 2004: 1:45.32
World champion 2007: 1:43.86
World record holder: 1:43.86
Career gold No9 would draw Phelps alongside Paavo Nurmi (FIN, runner), Larysa Latynina (URS, gymnast), Mark Spitz (USA, swimmer) and Carl Lewis (USA, track and field), all of whom won a record nine Olympic gold medals in their careers
Wednesday August 13
Gold Target No 4: 200m butterfly
Gold Target No 5: 4x200m freestyle
Olympic champion 2004: 1:54.04
World champion 2007: 1:52.09wr
World record holder: 1:52.09
Olympic champions 2004: USA 7:07.33
World champions 2007: USA 7:03.24wr
World record holders: 7:03.24
World record (with Phelps), 7:02.34
Victory in the 200m butterfly would make Phelps the biggest gold medal winner in Olympic history alongside Ray Ewry (USA, track and field) won 10 golds at four Games, including two at the intercalated Games of 1906, which were never recognised by the IOC. If the USA takes the 4x200m freestyle crown, Phelps would have 11 career golds and 13 medals overall. He would be well on his way to being 'the greatest'. But not done yet.
Thursday August 14
No finals for Phelps
Friday August 15
Gold Target No 6: 200m medley
Olympic champion 2004: 1:57.14
World champion 2007: 1:54.98wr
World record holder: 1:54.98
Phelps matches Spitz's Olympic record of seven gold medals and earns $1m from Speedo. The seventh wave represents his 12th gold medal and 14th medal overall.
Saturday August 16
Gold Target No 7: 100m butterfly
Olympic champion 2004: 51.25
World champion 2007: 50.77
Triumph in the 100m butterfly would bring Phelps a 9th gold medal in a solo event, taking him one title beyond the record of eight individual gold medals, held by Ray Ewry (including 1906 Intercalated Games). The 100m butterfly is critical to Phelps gaining the butterfly berth in the medley relay. In Phelps's way: Ian Crocker (USA), world record holder on 50.40sec.
Sunday August 17
Gold No 8: 4x100 medley relay
Phelps raced the heats of the medley relay in Athens 2004, giving way to Crocker in the final. In Melbourne 2007, Crocker broke early in heats and the USA found itself out of the final - no 8th gold for Phelps, a reminder that Phelps's final outcome relies not only on what he does.
The dominant USA medley quartet bring Phelps home to a record 8 gold medals at one Games and a record 16 medals overall, one beyond the best previous tally for a man, held by gymnast Nikolai Andrianov (URS).
Phelps has declared an interest in making London 2012 his swansong Games and will need to win two medals to match the record career tally of 18, held by gymnast Larysa Latynina (URS).