LONDON -- He was inhaling from the bong like there was no tomorrow, like this is where Olympic champions go to escape the pressure and expectations and photographers hiding in the bushes.
To the inviting aroma of ganja.
It was one picture that told a much deeper story than your average 23-year-old kid partying with friends, because at no time since he first jumped into a pool has Michael Phelps been viewed as average, and the image was a symbol for something other than just getting high.
"After 2008, I just didn't want to do it," Phelps said. "I knew deep down inside I wanted to, but I didn't want to put in the work. There were times I didn't come to practice. It didn't excite me. It wasn't interesting. I was kind of just going through the motions. 2008, that's how I was. 2009, that's how I was. 2010, that's how I was."
Today, this is how he is: Phelps is here to compete in the Olympics for a final time, to swim seven events and write the final chapter of what could prove to be the most successful athletic resume in the history of the games. It hasn't been all clear water and open lanes.
His was a terrible case of black line fever.
It was six months after Phelps secured his place as one of the greatest Olympians in history, an athlete of extraordinary talent whose eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing set a standard so epic, so memorable, his was viewed as an almost mythical achievement.
He was everywhere and everything, earning millions of dollars in endorsements and having placed his world records alongside the most dominant athletes of this generation and any before it.
Then a picture surfaced of Phelps at a house party in South Carolina soon after he stood atop his final medals platform in China, hitting a glass pipe with the focus of swimming the 100 butterfly final.
Backwards hat. Unshaven. White T-shirt.
The guy was a skateboard away from being Jeff Spicoli.
"He became like Michael Jordan," said U.S. teammate Brendan Hansen. "You heard the name Michael Phelps and the world knew everything about him. The intensity of that kind of pressure ... it would have been difficult for anyone to handle."
The answer from USA Swimming: Phelps was suspended for three months from competition. In a statement, officials said the punishment was meant to send a strong message to him because he had "disappointed so many people, particularly thousands of kids who look up to him as a role model and hero."
Problem: Phelps wasn't sure he wanted to be either anymore.
He got his second DUI in 2009. He was a poor man's Tiger Woods when it came to a long list of girlfriends. He brought one, a cocktail waitress named Caz whom he met at the Moon nightclub in the Palms , home to Mom for Thanksgiving.
He gained 25 pounds and none of it was muscle.
Meanwhile, the owner of the bong, a professional poker player, tried selling it for $100,000 on eBay. Police confiscated it first, but more stories surfaced about the famous swimmer and his night of acting the part of NBA player.
The last thing on Phelps' mind was London 2012, which should have surprised no one.
He practiced every day for six years leading to his first Olympics in Athens. Every. Single. Day. He practiced every day except Sundays leading into Beijing four years later. On Sundays, he lifted weights.
He was perfect in Beijing. Perfect mentality. Perfect fitness. Perfect preparation. Perfect execution.
But that's the thing about perfection.
Can anyone really expect it to last more than a minute?
EVOLUTION OF MICHAEL PHELPS
"It was clear for a couple years after Beijing that I found my passion for coming back before Michael did," said Bob Bowman, Phelps' longtime coach. "I'm a person who wants to be as prepared as possible and it was tough when we weren't training as much as we could. The entire time was sort of an evolution for us. I had to learn to control my emotions better."
How couldn't Phelps have suffered some level of burnout after 10 years of training, of spending thousands of hours in a pool, stroke after stroke, lap after lap, one reach after the other toward immortality?
He could have walked away with his 16 Olympic medals and continued enjoying his fame, not allowing himself to feel that flicker of desire deep inside where the hunger to compete still existed.
He could have been rich and fat and had a great time with women named Caz.
But he is here. Competing. Ready and able to increase his overall medal count. Fighting against the notion he is all natural talent and little work ethic, a claim made by U.S. teammate Tyler Clary shortly before the team arrived for the games .
His pursuit of the three medals it would take to pass the 18 won by Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina as the all-time leader began in a way a boulder would hitting the water and sinking, as Phelps finished fourth in the 400m Individual Medley on Saturday night. His time of 4:09.28 was miles off the world and Olympic record of 4:03.84 he set in Beijing.
He looked tired. He had nothing at the end or much in the middle, for that matter.
But such a lackluster beginning drove home this truth: Phelps got serious about training again only over the past few years, and there's every chance anything he does the next few weeks will be tougher than that photo-finish win in the 100m butterfly in Beijing or winning his eighth medal later in the meet or setting a world record in the 200 fly after his goggles filled with water and left him blind the last half of the race.
FINDING HIS PASSION AGAIN
"This is the last competitive meet I'm going to have in my career," Phelps said. "It's big. It's something I've never experienced. I'm going to have a lot of firsts and a lot of lasts this week.
"It was all about me finding my passion again. I needed to go through 2009 and 2010 to really find out the person I want to be. I wouldn't change anything. It was a learning experience. But I realized that standing on top of a medals podium with our national anthem playing and wearing the stars and stripes is the coolest thing in the world. I'm honored to represent this country, the best country in the world.
"This is closure. The only thing I have ever wanted to be was the first Michael Phelps."
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on "Gridlock," ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.