U.S. team not worried about Phelps acting age

At 15, Towson sophomore matures into contender for 200 butterfly medal

September 17, 2000|By PAUL MCMULLEN | PAUL MCMULLEN,SUN STAFF

SYDNEY, Australia - The coach of the U.S. Olympic men's swim team was asked to assess Michael Phelps' first month as a member.

"He trains and acts like a 22-year-old," Mark Schubert said.

But Phelps can't legally buy beer, let alone drive a car. Just three months past his 15th birthday, however, Phelps does possess the physical and emotional maturity to become the youngest American male ever to medal in the sport over the next two days at the Sydney International Aquatic Centre.

Instead of starting the second full week of his sophomore year at Towson High tomorrow, Phelps will swim the preliminaries and semifinals of the 200-meter butterfly. If his accelerated development maintains its pace, Phelps will swim the final, Tuesday, and possibly be in position to challenge world-record holder Tom Malchow, a fellow American, and France's Franck Esposito.

That's what every fiber in Phelps' being has been tuned to since Aug. 12, when he finished second at the U.S. trials and became the youngest male on the U.S. team since 1932. He is not along for the experience. Phelps has gained an inch an 10 pounds in the past month -- 6 feet 4 and 175 pounds -- and maintained the routine that has allowed him to trim seven seconds off his personal best in 2000.

"His coach (Bob Bowman) has given him a very structured program to follow and warned him not to get caught up and do some of the things that the older guys might want to do," Schubert said.

In one of his few diversions from training, Phelps tagged along with some teammates to a Brisbane casino.

"I told them I'm not old enough to gamble, and that I had no money to lose," Phelps said. "I went along anyway, but I didn't play. The older guys have just told me that I need to stay focused and relaxed, not to run around the Olympic Village."

Phelps has had two or three phone conversations with his girlfriend from Dulaney High in the past month. He had a lengthy chat last week with his sister, Whitney, a junior at Nevada-Las Vegas. His other inspiration, oldest sister Hillary, accompanied his mother, Debbie, here.

The youngest member, male or female, of an American contingent that numbers more than 600, Phelps perked up when told he wasn't the youngest male swimmer here. Khalid Al Kulaibi of Oman, who goes in the 50 freestyle, is 14 years, 4 months.

Because of Phelps' youth, Bowman, his coach at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, has probably had more access to the Olympic team's practices than anyone not on the U.S. staff.

"Bob's been with us more than your average club coach," Schubert said. "He and Michael work phenomenally well together, and because of the fact that Michael is so young, it's important to have his club coach here."

Phelps has been a sponge, soaking up advice from Bowman, Schubert and the American veterans. He made the Olympic team with a strong finish, but needs to complement his kick with a faster first 50 meters. Phelps worked with Schubert on his push off the blocks Friday morning at the IAC.

The U.S. trials were held just one month before the Olympics, and the performances of Americans will be scrutinized as swimming aficionados discuss the merits of that timing and tapering.

"There are two types of swimmers here," Phelps said of the Americans. "Some had the swim of their life at the trials. Bob Bowman and I talked about it, and one in five will better their time from the trials here."

Phelps plans to be in that 20 percent.

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