Traveling to Sydney, Australia - and competing on the grandest swim stage ever at the 2000 Olympics - is no longer Michael Phelps' biggest thrill.
"Setting a world record feels like being on top of the world," Phelps said. "No one before you has ever done a faster time than that. That's pretty awesome."
In typical Phelps fashion, he didn't just set a world record in the 200-meter butterfly March 30; he sent the sport's researchers scrambling to unearth yet more superlatives for the Towson High sophomore, the youngest male to represent the United States in Olympic swimming since 1932.
Phelps was nine months past his 15th birthday when he wrested the world record from Olympic gold medalist Tom Malchow at the U.S. spring nationals in Austin, Texas. USA Swimming officials report he is definitely the youngest American male to establish a world record, and he is probably the youngest world-record holder ever.
Among others, Phelps has gone faster quicker than Australian Ian Thorpe, who was 16 years, 10 months when he lowered the 200 free record in August 1999 and created a sensation Down Under. Japan's Kusuo Kitamura was 14 when he became the youngest male to win Olympic gold, in 1924, but he never owned the world mark in the 1,500 freestyle.
"I don't remember anyone else like this," said Nick Thierry, a Canadian who is regarded as the world's leading swim statistician. "He's certainly the youngest world- record holder of the modern era. It's an incredible accomplishment, because it's such a mature-type event."
Malchow returned the world record to the United States last June, with a clocking of 1 minute, 55.18 seconds. Phelps beat him in Texas, and lowered the 200 free standard to 1:54.92. After his time was posted on the electronic scoreboard at the University of Texas, Phelps said that he went "spazo," but world records have been on his radar for more than five years.
Phelps first dreamed of being a world-record holder when he watched his sister Whitney at the 1996 Olympic trials. He was 10, and working on a pile of national age-group records that continues to mushroom. A week before the spring nationals, Phelps matter-of-factly declared he was ready to swim a world record in Austin. That meet had been in his sights since Sept. 20, the day after he finished fifth at the Olympics.
Bob Bowman, his coach at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, jokes about the mild criticism he received - albeit from those unfamiliar with the rigors of swimming - for ordering Phelps back to the Sydney International Aquatic Center for a workout instead of freeing him for some sightseeing.
"Simon Legree made him get in the pool," Bowman said. "There was a reason. The workout was listed on graph paper, and in the margin I wrote, `Austin WR.' That's the abbreviation for the world record. I wanted Michael to get excited about the next season and point to the spring nationals."
It was difficult for Phelps to get grounded after the high of Sydney.
"There was an adjustment period of a couple of months there," Bowman said. "You don't realize how exhausted you are."
The two had a public snit on the deck at the Meadowbrook Swim Club after Thanksgiving. Phelps balked during a workout, and Bowman kicked him out of the pool where the NBAC trains. Phelps, 6 feet 4, 180 pounds and growing, is still polishing his turns, and is a little more than a year removed from breaking the two-minute barrier. He remains amazed at the training schedule of Tom Dolan, the world-record holder in the 400 individual medley.
"Michael set a world record not near the peak workload of a world-class swimmer," Bowman said. "Everyone remains fascinated by what he is doing. I don't spend a lot of time wondering why. I'm just glad it's happening in our program, and we want to keep it going."
The NBAC had another 15-year-old prodigy in 1992, when Anita Nall established a 200 breaststroke mark that stood as the American record for eight years. Phelps' record might not last eight weeks. He and Malchow will tangle again in a Grand Prix meet May 20, at the latter's home pool in Michigan.
The spring nationals qualified Phelps for the world championships at Fukuoka, Japan, in July. A Japanese television crew visited Meadowbrook yesterday to film Phelps, who is on course to star at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. His world record came the weekend of Maryland's first appearance in college basketball's men's Final Four and the Orioles' opener, however, and Phelps' celebrity didn't count for much at the Inner Harbor.
"My sister Hillary and her boyfriend came up from Florida to celebrate my world record," Phelps said. "We wanted to go to the Cheesecake Factory, but there was a 2 1/2 -hour wait. We went to the California Pizza Kitchen instead."
Turns are improving
One of the goals of Rodgers Forge resident Michael Phelps is to break 1 minute, 54 seconds in the 200-meter butterfly. In March, he became the first to break 1:55 in the event. The progression of the world record follows.
Name...................... Nation..............Year........... Time
Michael Gross..... E. Germany.... 1986............1:56.24
Melvin Stewart........ U.S.................1991............1:55.69
Denis Pankratov.... Russia...........1995............1:55.22
Tom Malchow........... U.S............... 2000........... 1:55.18
Michael Phelps.......... U.S.............. 2001............1:54.92
Source: USA Swimming