Waters of fame rising for Phelps

Swimming: Adding world records to his resume with regularity, the Towson 17-year-old is headed for a huge spotlight at the 2004 Athens Olympics.


September 17, 2002|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Michael Phelps' list of things to do ranges from the mundane to the magnificent.

Pick up coffee for the front office at Towson High.

Indulge the international swimming officials who popped into the Meadowbrook Aquatics Center and supply a drug-testing sample, his ninth in two weeks.

Consume calories every waking moment at home in Rodgers Forge.

Become the best swimmer in the world.


Last week, Phelps said: "I think it would be unbelievable to be the best swimmer in the world," but pool immortality and mention alongside the likes of Johnny Weissmuller - aka Tarzan - Mark Spitz and contemporary Ian Thorpe are quite feasible for a 17-year-old for whom normal limits were discarded long ago, like, when he was in the sixth grade.

He's just past the midway point between the closing of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, and the opening of the 2004 games in Athens, Greece. It's time to take stock of Phelps, a professional whose progress is alternately fascinating and predictable.

On his first stroll through the Olympics, Phelps played with house money. He traveled Down Under as a 15-year-old unburdened by expectations, the youngest male swimmer from the United States at the games since 1932. The next Olympics will play out in Europe, with a timetable more conducive to American television and hype. Come summer 2004, you might see Phelps' image, oh, about every 2.3 seconds.

His coach, his management team and Phelps himself are as calculating as ever about his goals, but they no longer cloak them in coyness. This is not the time to talk - or plan - small, because, barring injury, Phelps will provide half of what is expected to be one of the biggest story lines in Athens.

The two best swimmers in the world are 6-foot-4 teenagers with large lungs, wingspans and feet, but there is room in the Olympic pool for both. Thorpe is the dominant freestyler, Phelps the best all-around.

They won't compete head to head as much as in the medal count - and against the standard Spitz set in Munich in 1972, when he won gold in four individual events and three relays, the biggest haul ever for an Olympic athlete.

Phelps will likely compete in the 100 and 200 butterfly events, the 200 and 400 individual medleys and at least two of the three relays.

It's conceivable Thorpe and Phelps could combine to win seven of the 13 individual men's events at the Olympics. Thorpe, 19, won three gold medals and two silver in his hometown of Sydney two years ago. He's the world-record holder in the 200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyles, but the longer event isn't on the Olympic program.

Thorpe is aiming at the 100 freestyle mark, and he needs it, because Phelps figures to hold four individual world records himself very soon.

Already the youngest man ever to hold a world record, having twice lowered the 200 butterfly mark in 2001, Phelps added a second on Aug. 15, when he improved the 400 individual medley standard to 4 minutes, 11.09 seconds at the U.S. Summer Nationals.

The event tests a swimmer's proficiency in the butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle, and Phelps' form is still improving in all four.

During that same meet in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Phelps posted the second-fastest times ever in the 200 IM and 100 fly, and is minor improvements away from owning those marks.

The last man to hold four American records simultaneously was Spitz, in June 1975. That was almost three years after Munich, where Spitz had a hand in world records in all seven of his golds. Phelps' world record in the 200 fly is more than five seconds faster than Spitz's, but times aren't as important as medal shade at the Olympics.

"Our goal is to get Michael fast enough in the next year that, going into Athens, he can kind of transcend everyone's concept of what is fast," said Bob Bowman, his coach at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club.

"I want him to be in that ballpark because then he doesn't have to be 100 percent perfect to win gold medals. You don't want to be in a situation where everything has to be right."

There are factors to consider and factions to massage. Swimming and Olympic broadcaster NBC need stars. Just as track and field adjusted schedules to enable sprint star Michael Johnson to run both the 200 and 400 meters in Atlanta in 1996, the network will be consulted when FINA, swimming's international governing body, and the International Olympic Committee finalize the Athens timetable.

"I do know that part of the process is that NBC will get the final say," said Bowman, who was one of the U.S. coaches for the Pan Pacific championships and presumably will be on the American Olympic staff. "I can't imagine that they wouldn't want to have a situation where his [Phelps] events will line up well."

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