LONDON -- When the U.S. men's Olympic team gathered for its first meeting as a group last month, an unusual voice stood in front of the room and urged everyone to have fun, relax and enjoy everything that came with the final days of pursuing greatness.
The man was Michael Phelps. And the moment Phelps spoke, team captain Brendan Hansen nearly fell off his chair. In the past, the typically introverted Phelps had often deferred when it came to leadership. He wasn't comfortable. He didn't feel it was his place. In fact, Hansen said he saw Phelps only "three or four times" while the two of them were in Athens prepping for the 2004 Games.
But this time things are different. Phelps is more vocal in team meetings. He challenges the younger swimmers to push themselves. Put simply, he's being a leader. Maybe it's because he has matured. Maybe it's because it's likely his final Olympic Games and he's finally relaxed. Whatever the case, it's working. And Hansen has taken notice.
"He's so, so different," Hansen said. "There's a maturity level there, which is good. A lot of times people don't expect him to say anything because he's Michael Phelps, but for a lot of people, I think it's important to hear straight from the horse's mouth. Regardless of the way he performs in the next week and a half, he's been about so much more than the team. I think he sees a role where he can really help people do well. And he's taken to that."
And Hansen has made it one of his goals to help his most popular teammate enjoy the process as much as possible. That means shooing away starstruck athletes in the Olympic village. Hansen said he and his teammates never let Phelps walk alone in the village. And when they do go somewhere, they often put Phelps in the middle of a human box.
"I'm not trying to be his bigger brother," Hansen said. "But when he said in that first meeting he wanted to enjoy the process, I don't want that process to be taking pictures with everyone and signing autographs in the village. He's the highest-profile athlete here at the Olympics, and he's staying in the village. Not our basketball team. Not our tennis stars. Michael."
Phelps has said repeatedly that the London Games will mark the end of his career. But Hansen insisted the same thing after Beijing. Now here he is. Could he envision a scenario in which Phelps changes his mind in two to three years?
"I don't see it," Hansen said.
The reason? Although Hansen came back in pursuit of an elusive gold medal, Phelps already has enough Olympic hardware to start a jewelry store. His status as the greatest swimmer of all time is likely cemented after his eight-gold-medal performance in Beijing.
"I'm surprised he's even here," Hansen said.
And that's when the U.S. captain went on a tangent, shaking his head in frustration at the thought that Phelps could potentially win six gold medals in London and American sports fans could consider that a disappointment.
"I'm telling you right now: That shouldn't be done," Hansen said. "Just be glad that he is here with a suit on and not a three-piece suit in the stands. Just be glad he's on the blocks. I hope they aren't like, 'What the heck? He didn't win two more?' That's just not the mentality we should have toward a great athlete like that. But that's our mentality as a culture."
Hansen said he, Phelps and the rest of the U.S. team are uncommonly relaxed heading into the opening day of swimming Saturday. He described training camp as "drama-free" and expects everyone to swim well, including Phelps.
"Within the next week and a half, I think he'll be the most recognized athlete in the world," Hansen said. "Just because of what he's done."
Hansen was one of a handful of U.S. swimmers who spoke Wednesday as part of a promotion for Speedo. Also in the group was Natalie Coughlin, the 29-year-old who hinted that 2012 may not be her last Olympics, and Dana Vollmer, who is focused on winning gold and possibly setting the world record in the 100-meter butterfly.
Vollmer told the story of a special moment on Monday with 17-year-old teammate Missy Franklin, when she grabbed Franklin's hand as the two walked into the London Aquatics Centre for the first time. A teammate took a photo of the moment, and Vollmer shared the grainy photo on Twitter.
"I ran up to her and was like, 'Missy, I have to hold your hand when we go into this,'" Vollmer said. "I had all these goose bumps walking into an Olympic pool for the first time. It was just one of those moments. I don't care if people were laughing at us. I just had to hold her hand. It is one of those things I will never forget."