07/25/2012 12:58 EDT | Updated 09/24/2012 05:12 EDT

Michael Phelps goes from introverted to outspoken with teammates at last Olympics

LONDON - Michael Phelps is coming out of his shell on the brink of his last Olympics, taking the kind of leadership role with the U.S. squad that reflects his status in swimming.

The 14-time gold medallist is introverted by nature and has been criticized for his insular behaviour. But in London, Phelps is vocal at team meetings and showing interest in helping the younger swimmers succeed in the pressure-packed Olympic pool.

"A lot of times everyone kind of expects him not to say anything because he's Michael Phelps, but for these guys on the team it's really good to hear straight from the horse's mouth," breaststroker Brendan Hansen said Wednesday.

"He's been more vocal this trip than I think I've ever seen him," said Hansen, who recalled seeing Phelps only a few times during the 2004 Athens Olympics. "There's a maturity level there with him. He's been much more about the team and I think that's going to make him swim faster."

Unlike most of the American swimmers, Phelps didn't go to college, so he wasn't exposed to the team-first atmosphere that prevails at that level.

And being as good as he is naturally put him on a different level than other swimmers.

This time around, though, he's going for seven, not eight, gold medals. Still a heavy workload to be sure, but not quite the epic quest he was on four years ago in Beijing.

That's when Phelps was solely focused on conserving every ounce of his physical and emotional energy while winning eight golds over eight days, leaving little left to engage with his teammates.

"We're a lot more laid-back this time around, not only myself but as a team," Phelps said, wearing a scraggly beard on his tanned face during a visit to Club Speedo outside the Olympic Park.

Phelps said he was eagerly anticipating the upcoming men's team meeting, when the U.S. swimmers and coaches gather.

"Just being able to sit around and just talk about our experiences and what we can look forward to having happen when we're around the pool," he said.

Phelps' old elusiveness led to him being called out by his own teammate Tyler Clary and by two-time Olympian Ronda Rousey, a bronze medallist in judo at the Beijing Games. The mixed martial arts fighter said Phelps "kind of annoyed me" when the U.S. team, including NBA players, attended the same party at a Beijing club.

Rousey recently told a reporter that she felt snubbed by Phelps four years ago.

"Michael Phelps needed his own private section of the club to be like private for him," Rousey said. "All of these NBA players are a bigger deal than this guy, and they are hanging out with the rest of us."

Rousey said the same thing happened when the U.S. medallists appeared on Oprah Winfrey's show. "Kobe (Bryant) was sitting next to me talking and everyone is super cool, but Michael Phelps had to be kept separate in the back stage area so that he wouldn't be harassed by the other Olympians," Rousey said.

Clary questioned Phelps' work ethic and said that he works harder than Phelps does. Clary later said he regretted causing a distraction during the U.S. training camp.

Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, has acknowledged that the superstar is tightly managed as a result of his fame. At lower level meets, Phelps is a popular target for pictures and autographs among younger swimmers awed by his presence. He is kept moving in crowds to avoid being trapped.

His teammates run interference for him at the Olympic village in London.

"Just kind of boxing him out from people," Hansen said. "If we're walking in a crowd, we don't let him walk by himself."

Hansen credits Phelps for living in the village, unlike the NBA players who comprise the U.S. men's basketball team and the tennis team that includes Serena and Venus Williams.

"I want to make sure that he's having fun," Hansen said. "When he said in the first meeting about really enjoying every process of it, I just don't want that process to be taking pictures with people and signing autographs in the village."

Phelps is sharing his village digs with rival Ryan Lochte, Cullen Jones, Nathan Adrian, Matt Grevers, Charlie Houchin and Andrew Gemmell. They gather in the common area for nightly games of spades.

"Sure, we do fire some words back and forth over the card games, but it's all in good fun," he said.

Phelps and Lochte teamed to win the first game on Monday night.

Phelps trains in a group with Houchin, Allison Schmitt and Ariana Kukors, and they've taken turns reminding him that it's the last time he'll be doing this or that.

"It is funny, but it's also kind of weird," he said. "It's going to be a tough week emotionally for everything. The biggest thing that I really have to focus on is my emotional energy and how I use it through the week because I'm going to need a lot of it to get through."