SANTA CLARA, Calif. - It's been seven weeks since food poisoning led to a rare loss for Michael Phelps, a rarer withdrawal for the world's most versatile swimmer and make-up work on the final day of a Grand Prix meet in Indianapolis, where he used an exhibition to cram three races into 37 minutes.
No similar contrivances are necessary to simulate stress at the 37th annual Santa Clara International Invitational, which began last night at the home of one of the nation's most storied clubs.
Ever since he twice made history at the 2003 world championships, there has been runaway speculation regarding what races Phelps will swim this summer. Will he be satisfied trying to match the seven gold medals Mark Spitz won in 1972? Or will he try to surpass the Olympics' greatest feat?
Some clues could come this weekend. More likely, Phelps will continue to make the spectacular seem routine and prolong the guessing game about his Olympic program.
"In a lot of ways, this is the biggest meet of the year thus far," said Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach.
Phelps is favored in the 400-meter individual medley tonight, although the field includes Erik Vendt, who pushed him to the first of his three world-record performances in the event two years ago and remains the third-fastest ever.
Tomorrow is another matter.
The 18-year-old from the North Baltimore Aquatic Club will challenge Ian Crocker, who needed a world record to upset Phelps in the 100 butterfly last July in Barcelona. On scant rest, Phelps will come back in the 200 backstroke against another world record- holder, Aaron Peirsol, who beat him in this meet a year ago.
Unshaven and in water made choppy by a strong wind, Phelps responded to that defeat with a world record in the 200 IM. It was the first for this meet since 1971, when Silicon Valley was just an idea.
The George F. Haines International Swim Center here is an outdoor pool and temperatures aren't supposed to get above the low-70s during the meet.
Crocker and Phelps might not have the requisite sharpness to lower the 100 butterfly record, but the 200 backstroke mark doesn't appear as safe. Both headliners are taking a break from heavy training cycles, but Phelps was in the midst of one at the Spring Nationals, when he went 1:55.30, scaring Peirsol's two-year-old world record of 1:55.15.
Phelps has an even tougher test Sunday, when he will compete in three consecutive events: the 100 freestyle, where he'll face Crocker and Jason Lezak; the 200 IM, where he's the invincible world-record holder, and the 100 backstroke, where Peirsol has superior credentials.
That schedule is similar to the one he finished with in Indianapolis April 4, when the middle leg of an impressive hat trick came in the 100 freestyle, in which he avenged a 48-hour-old 200 free loss to South Africa's Ryk Neethling.
Michael Phelps' scheduled races during this weekend's Santa Clara International Invitational:
Today: 400-meter individual medley
Tomorrow: 100 butterfly, 200 backstroke
Sunday: 100 freestyle, 200 IM, 100 backstroke