The New York Times looks at the psychological warfare that takes place before the swimmers take to the blocks.
Before the 200 butterfly final at the 1976 Olympics, the Americans Steve Gregg and Mike Bruner were in the ready room opposite Roger Pyttel of East Germany, who had broken Mark Spitz's four-year-old world record in the event that summer.
"We had a lot of fun with Roger," Bruner said, recalling the act that he and Gregg put on.
Bruner said: "The conversation generally went: 'Do you think he speaks English? Well, maybe not. I didn't see any reaction in his face; maybe he doesn't understand.' There was a pause, and then one of us said, 'So you know, if the Americans go 1-2-3, he's going to be sent back to Siberia.' "
Pyttel's face went ashen, Bruner said. He and Gregg looked at each other, and Bruner remembered one of them saying, "I guess he understands English." As they walked out to the blocks, Bruner said, "It was clear to us, 'We've got him.' "
Bruner won the gold and broke Pyttel's world record. Gregg took the silver, and another American, Billy Forrester, the bronze. Pyttel was fourth.
In 1972, Spitz also had a partner in playing his mind games. He remembered taking his club coach, Sherm Chavoor, with him into the ready area.
"I would tell Sherm: 'I'm so tight. I'm so messed up,' and he would rub my shoulders while my competitors stared at us with their mouths open," Spitz said. "In actuality, there was nothing wrong with me. I just wanted my opponents to think I was hurting."
He won seven gold medals at those Games, all of them with world records attached, to set the bar for immortality that Phelps will try to raise in Beijing.
Swimmers, like all athletes, deal with the mental preparation in different ways. Some, like Phelps, aids shut out the world to prevent negative thoughts (some say it takes two positive thoughts to counteract one negative). Others are tripped over the edge, losing the confidence in what they knew to be fact beforehand and become vulnerable to the pressures of the surroundings more than the event itself.
Side note: I used to swim with Mark Spitz (about 10 years ago, not in the '70s when I was still swimming for pennies) and he is a character, and still a strong swimmer.