EVEN coming off his longest layoff and the embarrassment of being photographed inhaling from a dagga pipe, Michael Phelps turned in another remarkable performance over the eight days of the swimming world championships at the Foro Italico in Rome.
The American completed it on Sunday night by helping the US set the 43rd world record of the fastest meet in history in the 400m medley relay.
He may not have matched his record eight golds at the Beijing Olympics, but his five golds and a silver showed Phelps has plenty of fire, even when there's really nothing left to prove.
"I never want to look back on my career and ask, 'What if?'" he said.
No worries there. When Phelps is back in top condition, it's hard to imagine anyone standing in the way of anything he puts his mind to.
"An incredible talent, an incredible background and probably the greatest mental toughness I've ever witnessed in an athlete," raved Mark Schubert, general manager of USA Swimming, who was especially impressed with Phelps's thrilling win over Serbia's Milorad Cavic in a 100m butterfly showdown that featured plenty of smack talk beforehand.
Coach Bob Bowman said Phelps will get two weeks off before he's back in the pool, even though his next meet isn't likely to be until December when the US faces an all-star team from Britain, France and Russia.
Everything points towards the 2012 Olympics, which Phelps insists will be his farewell to the sport he has dominated.
"I think Michael will be the first to tell you his preparation wasn't the same here as it was in Beijing," Schubert said.
"But the mental toughness, you really can't compare it with anyone."
Swimming the butterfly leg, Phelps helped the US pull away from Germany and Australia to win in 3min:27,28sec.
That easily broke the mark of 3:29,34 set by the Americans at last summer's Olympics, another relay team that included Phelps.
"That relay brings out the best in me," Phelps said. "It doesn't matter how much energy I have, it's all going to go into every race. That's one of the things that I enjoy most - stepping out onto the blocks no matter what kind of shape I'm in."
Phelps took six months off after his Beijing triumph, drew a three-month suspension from competition after the infamous pipe photo - and he was still honoured as the outstanding male swimmer of the championships.
Italy's Federica Pellegrini received the female award at the final major meet for high-tech bodysuits, which are being banned officially on January 1 and likely before that in US.
"It certainly made it fun with all the records," Schubert said.
"But I'm looking forward to it going back to normal."
He'd certainly like to see the US put a little more distance on the rest of the world. The other countries are catching up - fast. - Sapa-AP