Life in the FAST LANE

He's well-traveled, self-assured and near the top of his sport. But at 15, Olympic butterflier Michael Phelps still hasn't quite left the cocoon.

Cover Story

January 14, 2001|By Story by Rob Hiaasen

Four years from now, the world will scrutinize him again.

His braces will be gone, and, yes, he'll have his driving license. He will have stopped growing nine inches and 60 pounds in a single year. His program will have expanded from his lone 200-meter butterfly race to three Olympic competitions. He's bound for Athens in 2004, swimming for gold medals, plural.

Only last fall, Michael Phelps came home from the 2000 Olympics to his training pool in Mount Washington, where he recounted meeting superstars Vince Carter and Mia Hamm. There Michael was, acting all grown up at 15, when his older sister Hilary stuck her tongue out to crack him up before the cameras. It was her way of saying, Buddy, isn't this a crazy ride? See you at home.. I'll drive you to the mall or make a pan of lasagna. I love you, you know.

The Phelps story line has universal themes: raw talent, hard work, single-minded devotion. But at the center is a family at work -- one that has experienced unrivaled success and unexpected heartbreak.

It's a family that went to the Olympics in pieces. Michael's mother and sister Hilary arrived by chartered jet, rooms ready aboard a cruise ship in Sydney Harbor, their trip sponsored by an insurance company. Michael's father and his new bride arrived by commercial jet, their $10,000 trip unsponsored. His other sister, once an Olympic hopeful herself, stayed far away.

In 2004, we can say we knew him when -- when he met the mayor of Baltimore and was a guest at the White House, when he had trading cards in his name and screen savers featured his mug, when girls at his high school in Towson dreamed of landing him as their prom date, when he swam more than 12 miles on double practice days just to drop a particle off his best time.

Only 1.32 seconds separate Michael from his goal of breaking the world record in the 200-meter butterfly by March. Only 1.32 seconds -- the average time it takes to type the name Michael.

Doesn't everyone wish to freeze certain moments? Their wedding day. The birth of their son, a 9.6 pounder. The time their daughter was a world-ranked swimmer. The time their boy learned how to shake a man's hand. The time he brought his mother a silver charm from Sydney. And the times they get a parent's biggest thrill: when people say their son is a gentleman, and not just a great swimmer.

Let's freeze Michael at 15. The time: fall 2000, after the Olympics, before the rest of the world went away to watch other young men play other sports. A growing boy, Michael Fred Phelps, is growing into himself. He's a champion in progress, a man in the making, with a coach and family behind him.

To begin, let's watch Michael eat.

He isn't even breaking a sweat. On other Monday nights at Bill Bateman's in Towson, Michael scarfs down 50 or more Buffalo wings at a sitting. But on this night, at this meal with his mother and his sister Hilary, he doesn't go the distance. He's getting over a headache.

"Were you reading again?" Hilary teases. "Is that how you got your headache?"

Even for an Olympic athlete, surviving older sisters is a triumph.

It's early October and Michael has decompressed from the pressure of Sydney, where in September he placed fifth in the 200-meter butterfly. "He's back to normal, all right," Hilary says. The dinner is spent with sister and brother in each other's lanes, laughing and trading inside jabs, reveling in each other's company. The missing link, sister Whitney, is away at college.

Hilary graduated last year from the University of Richmond, where, she mentions under her breath, "I hold three swimming records." At 22, Hilary, the first child, the first swimmer in the family, looks at a career that might be over. She wants to get a job and get on with the business of life-after-swimming.

She lives at home in Rodgers Forge, where the Phelps front yard was acupunctured with U.S. flags for Michael's return from Sydney. She makes her brother cheesecake and lasagna in ample quantities. "That's my part in the Michael Phelps swimming scenario," she says.

Tonight over wings, she and Michael exchange dialogue from Adam Sandler movies. In fact, Michael's longest and most animated sentences are passages from his favorite comedies. There's no stopping him. Try asking Michael about the Olympics, though, and he'll say, "It was just something to go to. "

He may swim like a 22-year-old man, but Michael Phelps is quintessentially 15; a boy who wanted to get his braces off before the Olympics so the press wouldn't harp on such weighty matters as orthodontia.

Hilary and Michael recite movie dialogue until their mother intervenes.

"Can you quote Shakespeare like that?" she asks.

Spoken like a true educator. Deborah Phelps, a former tomboy from western Maryland, is an administrator at Loch Raven Academy. Debs, her children call her.

"Debs made me come home early from the Olympics," Michael says, so he missed out on a free Razor scooter the athletes received.

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