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For the first time in his remarkable career, Michael Phelps's aura of invincibility has been put into question. ((Ezra Shaw/Getty Images))

For most of his remarkable swimming career, Michael Phelps has been competing against history rather than actual opponents.

The list of Olympic and world championship gold medals seems endless. His place among the greatest sports athletes of all-time is secured.

The 26-year-old Baltimore native has dominated his sport so thoroughly for almost a decade that questioning trivial losses would be downright silly.

Until now.

On the eve of the world aquatics championships, which begin Saturday in Shanghai, China, Phelps will need to show everyone he's still the best.

The American legend isn't an automatic lock to sweep through the top of the podium. That's because the competition is stiffer than at any other point in his career.

Invincibility takes hit

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American Ryan Lochte, left, will give buddy Phelps, right, a run for most gold medals at the world aquatics championships and the London Olympics. ((Harry How/Getty Images))

Phelps's aura of invincibility took a direct hit in the summer of 2010, specifically during the Pan Pacific championships. It's where pundits began sensing a chink in his armour.

With little training, Phelps decided to enter the 400-metre individual medley. Not only did Phelps lose to teammate and buddy Ryan Lochte in one of the preliminary heats, but he didn't even qualify for the final. Phelps then pulled out of the 200 IM, and acknowledged Lochte's superiority for the time being.

These were events that Phelps owned for years.

This season hasn't gone much smoother. In his signature event — the 200m butterfly — Phelps lost twice to China's Wu Peng at the Michigan Grand Prix, and then Charlotte UltraSwim competition.

Before those two losses, Phelps was on an amazing 60-win streak — a span of nearly nine years.

But is an ordinary 12 months a true sign of things to come, or can a more serious training regimen keep Phelps on top of the heap?

"People always thought it was Michael's pure talent, but it wasn't," said CBC Sports swim analyst Bryon MacDonald. "He has talent, there's no question, but he also trains harder than anyone else in the world. And he hasn't been lately.

"He gained his belief in himself off of his training, and so he lost a little bit of that belief."

Phelps, who is coming off an intense training period in Colorado Springs, Colo., agrees the key is how he prepares for competitions.

"I wasn't really that good," Phelps told MacDonald in Montreal last week of his two losses to the Chinese swimmer. "I think it's frustrating but I think that it's something that will help me in the long run. And I think I needed that one to use as motivation. It's something that I would like to keep for the next two years. But it's going to make me work that much harder to get back."

Mistake in doubting Phelps

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The biggest mistake any opponent can make is doubt the fire of Phelps. ((Lars Baron/Getty Images))

The biggest mistake any competitor can make is doubt Michael Phelps.

When Aussie great Ian Thorpe remarked that the American couldn't beat Mark Spitz's record mark of seven gold medals in one Olympics, Phelps taped the newspaper clipping in his locker. Months later he won eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

When Milorad Cavic began trash talking prior to his 100m butterfly showdown at the 2009 worlds in Rome with his rival, Phelps humbled the brash Serbian by setting a world record.  Even Bob Bowman — Phelps's longtime coach — admitted it was one of the finest races his pupil had ever performed in.

"Little things like that really appeal to this guy," said MacDonald, noting that he saw that same drive in Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods whenever they were challenged. "It's the old adage that you don't poke a bear with a stick. It's the same thing with Michael."

Precursor to London Olympics

In essence, these world championships should be considered a precursor to the 2012 London Olympics.

Lochte will give Phelps a run for most gold medals in the coming days, a battle that is expected to be duplicated next summer in London. Yet challenges have always propelled Phelps to never-before seen heights.

But what's left for this once in a lifetime athlete to accomplish? How many more times can he, as his coach likes to put it, 'climb Mount Everest'?

"I think his motivation probably comes from three areas: One is leave a record that is so insurmountable that nobody will ever question he's the greatest Olympic athlete ever," said MacDonald . "Even now he's got a [record] 14 Olympic gold medals, which is pretty tough for anybody to beat that.

"If he throws down five or six more gold medals, for hundreds of years he will be the greatest athlete ever. There is that legacy to shoot for. Certainly he's making some pretty good money and I'm sure it's contingent on him still swimming, so there is a financial aspect to this thing.

"And the final one is [swimming] has been his entire life. He's got stuff to prove and he seems to be able to reach that when he really has too."