No doubts how Phelps spent summer vacation

Swimming: After his performance at the national championships, the Towson senior is the first since the 1970s to simultaneously hold four U.S. records.


August 24, 2002|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Before he headed to the U.S. Summer Nationals and a week's worth of pressure-packed races in which production would be a must to set up his competition calendar for the next year, Michael Phelps neatly summarized the task that awaited him.

"If I'm going to be as dominant as I want to be at the [2004] Olympics in more than one stroke," Phelps said, "I've got to start making that point soon."

The North Baltimore Aquatic Club product emphatically delivered in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., last week, and woke up today in Japan not just as the youngest man ever to hold a world record, but also as the planet's best all-around swimmer. The 17-year-old from Rodgers Forge is in Yokohama for the Pan Pacific Championships, a meeting open to Pacific Rim countries from China to Canada and, most important, Australia.

The Aussies are the Americans' chief rival in the sport. Down Under, Ian Thorpe, still a teen himself, has declared his intention to win nine gold medals at the 2004 Olympics in Greece. Phelps, meanwhile, is having trouble shedding his modesty. The top American star said that he would miss the opening days of his senior year at Towson High only if he were fortunate to qualify for the "Pan Pacs."

Phelps did, and then some at the Summer Nationals, where he became the first man since the legendary Mark Spitz in 1975 to simultaneously hold four American records. The Summer Nationals served as the qualifying meet for the 2003 world championships. That major steppingstone on the road to Athens will come next July in Barcelona, Spain, but first Phelps must focus on the Pan Pacs, where he will get another major meet and the demanding schedule he craves.

As expected, Phelps is the man to beat in the 200-meter butterfly, the event in which he became America's youngest male Olympian since 1932 and set the world record at the tender age of 15. Phelps didn't better his standard in what had been his specialty in Fort Lauderdale, where he instead showed off his rapidly expanding repertoire.

He is coming off major breakthroughs in the two individual medleys. In the 400 IM, Phelps lowered the world record to 4 minutes, 11.09 seconds, shaving more than three seconds off his personal best and bettering the mark set by two-time Olympic gold medallist Tom Dolan. In the 200 IM, he lowered Dolan's American record to 1:58.68 and became No. 2 all-time, a half-second off of the second-oldest world record on the books.

Phelps is also among the Pan Pac favorites in the 100 butterfly, in which he lowered the American record to 51.88, another mark that makes him No. 2 all-time. He should be challenged in that event by Australian Geoff Huegill. The 100 fly win in Fort Lauderdale earned Phelps a spot on the 400 medley relay at the Pan Pacs. He was third in the 200 free, but nonetheless earned a berth on the 800 relay.

The 800 relay is the only event in which Phelps and Thorpe, who holds the world records in the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles, could go head-to-head. Spurred on by other Australians and American teammates like Erik Vendt, Phelps could improve some of his marks, and possibly gain a world record in a third discipline. He'll be busiest on the meet's last day, Aug. 29, with three finals.

Last year, Phelps became the first sophomore named High School Athlete of the Year by The Sun, and then the youngest male to swim professionally when he signed an endorsement contract with Speedo. Since then, he has shaved four seconds off his personal best in the 400 IM, two seconds off his PR in the 200 IM and one second off his 100 fly.

Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach at the NBAC, is on the American staff for the Pan Pacs. Tom Hannan, a Mount St. Joseph grad who won a gold medal in the 2000 Olympics in the 400 medley relay, is on the American roster.

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