SYDNEY, Australia - Is he the next Tom Malchow, the next Tom Dolan or the next Mark Spitz?
The International Aquatic Centre has gone bonkers over a couple of Olympic legends in the making - homeboy Ian Thorpe and Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband - but Michael Phelps wasn't too shabby either. The 15-year-old from Rodgers Forge, who finished fifth in the 200-meter butterfly final last night, left America's best swimmers and coaches raving about his composure and placing few limits on his potential.
"Michael is incredible," said Lenny Krayzelburg, an Olympic champion and world-record setter like all of the aforementioned men. "To be the 10th-fastest man in the world ever at 15, I can't believe that. He's the future of our sport in his event."
Actually, the Grecian formula back at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club is for Phelps to turn his uncommon drive and talent into more epic accomplishments at the Athens Olympics in 2004 and beyond. Phelps will eventually show his versatility on the international stage and branch out from the 200 butterfly, which he swam last night in 1 minute, 56.50 seconds, a time that would have won in Atlanta four years ago.
The event was won by Malchow, a 24-year-old who isn't moving into a rest home. Malchow was the youngest member of the U.S. men's team in 1996, when he was called "Puppychow." Comparisons to Malchow are obvious, but no one here referred to the pride of Towson High as "Little Phelps," the name Michael was tagged with when he followed his sisters Hillary and Whitney through the ranks at the Meadowbrook Swim Club.
Phelps' precocity extends to the 400 individual medley. It's the domain of Dolan, another Olympic champion who considers himself the best all-around swimmer in the world.
If Phelps' fans want to join the American swim community and go completely overboard, then talk Spitz, who won two gold medals in 1968, an unprecedented seven in '72 and 11 medals all told. The swim world has changed since the Munich Games. Americans may never sweep the relays again and pad the medal count of their stars, but the U.S. coaching staff considers Phelps a national team regular who will soon swim with the world's best in a variety of events.
"It feels good having people behind me, saying things like that about me," said Phelps, who was asked about the 2004 Olympics. "That's going to be a great year. The next four years are going to be exciting."
In the past year, Phelps' stock has risen faster than a cutting-edge dot-com. He estimates he was 5 feet 7 and 115 pounds last summer. Now, Phelps is a shade under 6-4 and 175. Phelps was already the owner of dozens of national age group records, and that growth spurt was fueled by his mom's cooking and delicately managed by Bob Bowman, the NBAC coach who was given rare carte blanche by the American coaching staff here.
"His development is going to require a lot of work and patience," Bowman said. "He certainly isn't going to grow much more. Improvement will have to depend on other things."
Phelps is still a kid who loses his retainer and just wants to go to the driving range with his buddies, but he finally understands that playing golf for the Towson Generals is an experience he'll miss.
Phelps' mother, Debbie, said: "He's ready to go back to being a 15-year-old," but how many spent the afternoon taping an interview for the "Today" show?
World-class swimmers can lose their edge in days, and Phelps was back in the Olympic pool this morning, training and thinking about the spring nationals. That's the qualifier for the 2001 world championships, which will be held in July in Japan.
"I know what I'm going to have to do to be better at the next Olympics," Phelps said. "I've got to work on my starts, my turns, my technique, get more speed."
After the Olympic final, Phelps had on the Michigan hat he has been wearing since last spring. Dolan and Malchow went there, and Phelps sounds as if he's ready to sign with the Wolverines a year or two early. His strokes and strength are only going to get better, but there is no need to improve on the quality that was paramount in the climb that made him the youngest member of the U.S. men's team since 1932.
"Michael has the most important thing an athlete needs - the ability to focus and relax," Bowman said. "All of the great champions have that. It's Thorpe's greatest asset. I have never seen Michael get rattled in a competition."