MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) -- Six weeks ago, Michael Phelps showed up for a swim meet in America's heartland, sporting a goatee and unkempt hair that barely fit under his skincap.
Then, he went out and set a world record. Hmmm, this might be good.
"Right then and there, I thought something special could happen this year," Phelps said Thursday.
Boy, was he on the mark. Phelps set his third world record in many days at the world swimming championships, wiping out the field in the 200-meter individual medley at Rod Laver Arena.
Phelps came home in 1 minute, 54.98 seconds, easily bettering his own mark of 1:55.84 set last August at the Pan Pacific championships. Just as he did in the other record-breaking swims, he jumped out to a quick lead and snuffed out all hope for those who dove in the pool with him.
"Why stop something that works?" Phelps said, not requiring an answer.
The 21-year-old phenomenon -- or "mutant," as teammate Tara Kirk referred to him -- is still on course to go eight-for-eight at these championships, reaching the midway point of his grueling schedule with four golds to his name.
"There is nobody out there like him," said Jon Urbanchek, a longtime American coach. "Right now, Michael stands by himself."
C'mon, surely he compares with another athlete of this era. Tiger Woods surely comes to mind. Or maybe Roger Federer.
"He's more like Michael Jordan," Urbanchek said. "He's way out there."
Phelps' personal coach, Bob Bowman, began to sense last month that his star pupil was on the verge of a landmark accomplishment Down Under.
At an off-the-radar meet in Missouri, Phelps was "not in a really strong racing state" for the 200 fly. This was a warmup, pure and simple, a chance to hone some techniques for Melbourne. Heck, he didn't even bother shaving down in true swimmer fashion.
And still, he broke his own world record.
"That was unexpected. That wasn't part of the script," Urbanchek said. "When he put that swim in, everyone knew the big one was coming here."
Did it ever.
Phelps led off a gold-medal showing the 400 free relay with a time that would have been good enough to win individually in the 100 free Thursday night.
Then he took down Ian Thorpe's six-year-old record in the 200 free, becoming the first swimmer in history to break 1:44.
Then he shattered the 200 fly record by a staggering 1.62 seconds, the biggest margin in 48 years.
Then he wiped out his own mark in the 200 individual medley by 0.86 seconds, another staggering margin in a sport that's usually measured in the hundredths.
"Michael is just out of reach," said Hungary's Laszlo Cseh, who settled for the bronze in the latest race.
Get ready for another round of hype. It appears the Beijing Olympics will be ruled by the same athlete who dominated the Athens Games, where Phelps won six golds and eight medals overall.
Those six golds, or course, were one short of Mark Spitz's landmark record at Munich in 1972. Phelps hasn't let go of is desire to take down Spitz -- nothing personal, Mark -- and he's using Melbourne to determine if his body can hold up to such an imposing schedule one more time.
By all accounts, it can.
"This is way better than Athens," Bowman said. "If you look at Athens, he broke a world record the first night. After that, he kept winning but he was not doing as good at times. I think he knows what he's doing more. He's marshaling his energy much better."
On Friday, Phelps will return to the pool for preliminaries in the only race that seems to hold any chance of tripping up his eight-wins-in-eight-days plan. Fellow American Ian Crocker holds the world record in the 100 fly with an astonishing time of 50.40 at the last world championships in Montreal.
In fact, Crocker is the only swimmer in history to break 51 seconds, doing it three times in all. Phelps briefly held the world record during the 2003 worlds in Barcelona at 51.10, but he hasn't been able to beat that mark in the past four years.
Then again, Phelps did edge an ailing Crocker by four-hundredths of a second to win gold at the Athens Olympics. And the way things are going in Melbourne, anything seems possible.
"On Ian's best day, he's very, very hard to beat," said another American star, backstroker Aaron Peirsol. "Yeah, Michael is getting faster. But no one is faster than Ian. Mike comes home well. So can Ian. It's going to be a good race. I know they are looking forward to it, both of them. Nobody is giving it to anybody yet."
Pressed for a prediction, Peirsol hemmed and hawed before declaring, "I hope they tie."
Also left on the agenda: A pair of relays in which the Americans are favored to win gold, most likely with Phelps as part of the team. There's also the 400 individual medley, in which Phelps already is the world record holder.
Which leaves the 100 fly, where Crocker has to be considered the favorite.
"I'm excited to get in the water and race Ian," Phelps said. "I've shown that I have more speed now than I've really ever had. Hopefully, this is the time where he doesn't beat me by a body length in the 100. Time will tell, but I'm definitely feeling strong in the water."
Phelps used to have a picture of Crocker hanging in his bedroom, a sign of just how much he wanted to beat his butterfly rival. It came down after he moved to Michigan, but that doesn't mean the motivation has waned at all.
"Somebody asked me the other day, 'Is Michael doing the 100 fly?"' Bowman said. "That's the main event he wants to do.
"In all the others, everyone is shooting at him. This is the one event where he gets to have some fun. If he wins, great. If he doesn't, great. He's just going for a best time. It's just a different dynamic than the others, when you're the best and everyone wants to beat you."
So far, no one has been able to beat Phelps.
No one has even come close.