It was easy to tell when swimmer Michael Phelps was in the midst of a particularly grueling training period.
The door to Benny's Family Dining, on South Industrial Highway in Ann Arbor, near the University of Michigan campus, would swing open around 7 a.m. And in would walk Phelps, still groggy after the day's first workout, sliding into a booth near the front of the diner - away from the smokers seated in back.
Like a sports car pushing E, he'd fuel up, replenishing calories burned an hour before.
"A bowl of rice pudding, always before the meal," said Benny Shehaj, the restaurant's owner. "Then came his 'Hungry Man.' "
Phelps' typical breakfast order: Three eggs over easy, hash brown potatoes, five sausages, wheat toast. Depending on his appetite, he'd request a side of bacon.
Oh, and keep the water coming.
"A champion eater," Shehaj said. "When I first met him, he was 19. I look at him now on TV - it's so special watching him. My 8 1/2 -year-old boy, Domenik, is taking swimming lessons. He says, 'I want to be like Michael.' It's unbelievable, making all this history.
"But I used to make fun of him. I'd say, 'Michael, you are always first - at finishing your plate.' "
Eat your heart out
Amazing stuff, hasn't it been?
Since Saturday, when the swimming competition began, Phelps has turned the Beijing Olympics into his own prime-time TV series. He has gone 5-for-5 in gold medals, smashing world records each time.
And yet Phelps, 23, still has more than a third of his program left to swim. By the time he is through, he likely will have participated in 17 races, including eight finals, spread over nine days.
How does he do it? And more to the point: Where does he get all that energy?
It comes from more than just the 8,000 to 10,000 calories a day Phelps consumes to keep his motor running.
Still, Phelps' food intake is notable - especially for an athlete who doesn't like to cook. The stories of him gulping cereal from a rinsed-out Gatorade bottle - before he bought bowls - are true.
Phelps lived in downtown Ann Arbor the past four years, before departing in June. He often walked from his condo to Prickly Pear Southwest Café, where waiter Dave Lyon knew Phelps' favorite meal by heart: buffalo meat enchilada with beans and rice.
At Casey's Tavern - which has a photo of Phelps displayed in a booth near the front door - Phelps was a fan of its half-pound hamburgers.
But Phelps' ability to endure such an exhaustive schedule goes far beyond what he eats.
Food for thought
Much of his success, coaches and sports physiologists say, comes from Phelps' maneuvering of his 6-foot-4, 195-pound body in the water. It is a body built for swimming, with short legs and a massive torso, and the state-of-the-art Speedo suit he wears is woven specifically to reduce drag.
Phelps' Flipper-like, size-14 feet are so flexible, it has been said, he can lay flat on his back, arch his feet and curl his toes to touch the ground.
Then there's his superior fitness and aerobic conditioning, the culmination of years of following a demanding training program designed by his longtime coach Bob Bowman, who'll return with Phelps to Baltimore after the Beijing Games. (Bowman was the men's swimming head coach at Michigan, and for its high-performance postgrad team, Club Wolverine, from August 2004 until this June.)
"Michael's ability to recover from one race to another is amazing," Genadijus Sokolovas, director of physiology for USA Swimming, wrote in an e-mail Wednesday from Beijing. "It is related to his great aerobic capacity, which was developed through the long-term training.
"If a swimmer has a good aerobic conditioning, he/she swims more aerobically without accumulating high levels of metabolic products, including the lactic acid. As a result of low accumulation, athletes can recover faster and (the) cost of their performances is lower."
Phelps, the most decorated U.S. Olympian of all time, with 11 gold medals (including six from 2004 in Athens), goes for his next gold today. After competing in the 200 individual medley, he will finish with the 100 butterfly and 400 medley relay.
"The race itself is probably the easiest thing he does," said David Carr, a professor of physical education and sport sciences at Ohio University who has worked in performance services at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
"It's not a burden. It's who he is. It's what he does. He relishes the moment. He's got the perfect body build, the mind-set - all the physical tools. He's a special athlete that doesn't come along that often."
Which is something Benny's diner owner Shehaj has known the past four years.
"After Athens in 2004, nobody recognized him," Shehaj said. "Now everybody knows his name. I'm so proud."
Contact JO-ANN BARNAS at 313-222-2037 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
BY JO-ANN BARNAS - FREE PRESS SPORTS WRITER