Big splash by Phelps is special moment

February 02, 2003|By Laura Vecsey

THE FASTEST all-around swimmer in the world is coming at me.

Michael Phelps is in the next lane at Mount Washington's Meadowbrook pool. It is one of the most odd, thrilling, intimidating sensations I have ever experienced.

Phelps is the kid wearing a blue and yellow cap emblazoned with the phrase "Athens 2004." He might as well start swimming across the Atlantic Ocean and the blue Aegean sea to get to those Greek Olympics now.

Could he do it? Sure seems like it.

America's greatest gold-medal hope in Athens and now a professional swimmer who has earned enough money to buy himself an Escalade is brimming with energy, purpose, speed and endurance.

But Phelps must wait another 18 months for swimming's biggest stage.

Oops. Watch it. Here comes the flip turn.

Phelps has just pelted me with a shower of pool water. I don't care. Why? Because how many times have you ever shared the same space - the same water - with the absolute best of the best, an athlete with more accomplishments and more potential than you can name?

This would be Phelps, owner of world records in the 200-meter butterfly and 400-meter individual medley, and seven national titles.

And at the age of 17, a Towson High School senior, he has only begun.

It does not seem possible or plausible to be within fingertip reach of an athlete like this. Not in this day and age, when elite athletes are so off-limits, so arrogant and sequestered.

And yet here I found myself on a snowy day in Baltimore in the water of a not-very-fancy swim club, along with therapy pool users, swim-lesson toddlers and fitness seekers.

And Michael Phelps.

Permit me to say this: In 14 years of sportswriting, having been in the presence of just about every famous, world-class athlete known to man, this swimming with Phelps is the ultimate.

Better than standing on the field during Cal Ripken's batting practice.

Better than watching Pedro Martinez warm up before an American League Championship Series game against the Yankees.

Better than standing in the Bulls' locker room after Michael Jordan won an NBA title.

Better than rushing the field to interview Julie Foudy and Michelle Akers after the United States won the 1999 Women's World Cup.

All of those were stupendous moments. This is better. Better because this is personal.

You move to a new city, take a new job and sign up with your neighborhood swim club. You get Michael Phelps. You get an Olympian who is undertaking a task the likes of which you can barely begin to comprehend, since Phelps is preparing to win six, maybe seven, gold medals in Athens.

Do not ask how many miles he swims in order to accomplish this goal.

OK, it's 45 - a week.

See, beyond imagination. Mere mortals like us paddle our imperfect bodies across the 25-meter lanes for 40 minutes, killing a few calories and working out a few kinks. We feel proud and liberated by our short, well-intentioned aquatic stints - until we see him.

Phelps has the wingspan of a heron. He has the buoyancy of a dolphin.

His coach also likes to point out that Phelps has the will of a shark - or a Mark Spitz or Eric Heiden, some of the other Olympians who racked up multiple gold medals.

"Michael is a pretty competitive guy. I'm not sure he loves winning or hates to lose. But it's something," said Bob Bowman.

"Everything we do in the pool has a purpose," Phelps told me earlier, when I spoke with him in his coach's office.

Bowman has been in Baltimore since Phelps was 12. He came to run the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, which has a history of molding Olympic swimmers.

In 2001, Bowman was named both USA Swimming Coach of the Year and the American Swimming Coaches Association Coach of the Year. He and Phelps are a team, careers entwined and successful, with so much room for growth.

"We want to redefine speed," Bowman said.

Phelps smiles at the idea. It is an astounding, devilish idea. But together, Bowman and Phelps study tape, rustle up meets and training partners within the NBAC team.

Meadowbrook is like home. It's the pool to which Phelps has been coming since he was a kid, goofing around on the deck in the summer, following the lead of his older sisters, both accomplished swimmers. It's almost quaint and reassuring, the environs in which this pair are concocting a winning program.

Bowman's office is behind the snack bar, shut down now for winter. Cases of soda, an old copying machine, a few plastic chairs and a busted treadmill make the path to Bowman's office a bit of an obstacle course. But the work is getting done.

"Bob makes it interesting," Phelps said, smiling.

Six years ago, Bowman took Phelps and his parents aside and said: "Listen, this kid has the potential to go all the way."

Bowman's premonition proved so right, so soon. In 2000, Phelps broke through for an appearance in Sydney, Australia - the youngest male American Olympian since 1932. In 2001, he set a world record in the 200 fly.

And now, it is all about peaking in 2004 - with stops at the U.S. nationals in April and the 2003 world championships in Barcelona, Spain, in July.

Meanwhile, mere mortals like me hang on the edge of the pool, watching in awe. I want to believe him, that staying focused on this training course is not difficult, but this is unfathomable.

Eighty-thousand meters a week for endurance. Sprints for speed. Drills for technique. Dry-land training for strength. And then the good stuff that comes from so much hard work: sleeping and eating. Only Phelps is in a different league here, as well.

What does he crave when he swims so much?

"A snowball," he said.

"You know, shaved ice with syrup. Sometimes that seems so good."

Maybe for him it does. For us mere mortals, we might prefer to think we'd earned a pizza.

No wonder come Athens, Phelps probably will carry NBC, USA Swimming, North Baltimore - and America - on those shoulders.

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