In 1996 Bob Bowman, the head coach of the US men's swimming team in Beijing, made a prediction.
"By 2000," he said, Michael Phelps (who he was then coaching at North Baltimore Aquatic Club), would be "in the Olympic trials". "By 2004, he makes the Olympics. By 2008, he'll set world records. By 2012, the Olympics will be in New York and..."
Excepting the New York bit, Bowman - a Beethoven fan with a degree in developmental psychology - was, if anything, a little modest.
In Athens four years ago, aged just 19, Phelps did more than just compete - he won six gold medals and two bronzes. Yesterday he become the greatest Olym-pian ever when he won his 11th gold - and he could yet win three more.
Phelps has come a long way from his unhappy childhood, where his nicknames came from bullies rather than fans. Other children would mock his "sticky-out ears", his goofy expression, and his over- sized chin.
His extreme height (he was measured at 6ft 2ins shortly after his 14th birthday) invited incessant teasing at school. Even his mother admitted that her son "grew unevenly ... it was his ears, then he had very long arms, then he would catch up somewhere else".
Together with his diagnosis for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, for which he required daily doses of the drug Ritalin, the future Olympian provided bullies with more ammunition than most.
Phelps recently spoke for the first time of the "deep hurt" these experiences caused. He became, he said, quiet, introspective, angry - and rather good at swimming.
Born and raised in the blue-collar mill town of Towson, six miles north of Baltimore, Maryland, Phelps endured these early traumas every time he ventured into public. But life at home provided neither respite nor refuge.
Years after they separated for the first time, his father Fred, a state trooper, acrimoniously divorced his mother, Debbie, a school administrator and teacher, when Phelps was seven. …