For Phelps, big `Duel in Pool' could prove just walk in park

In 3 events vs. Australians, he's likely to win them all


April 06, 2003|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS -- Michael Phelps will continue his contrary ways in today's "Duel in the Pool."

The one-day competition between Australia and the United States, the world's dominant swimming nations, lost some glamour when the visitors scratched national hero Ian Thorpe because of a meningitis-like virus, but the event will not be without star power, thanks to Phelps, the 17-year-old from Rodgers Forge and the North Baltimore Aquatic Club.

Phelps is the only American man entered in three individual events, and he'll be favored to sweep the 400 individual medley and both the 100 and 200 butterflys. He's the world-record holder in two of the three, and a half second off the standard in the other.

This is supposed to be an era of specialization, but Phelps ruled events in three different strokes, the 200 freestyle, 200 backstroke and 100 butterfly, in the Spring Nationals that concluded last night. It's a triple that had never been accomplished before.

He has won 10 national titles in seven events, covering three of the four strokes and the two IMs. Next summer in Greece, Phelps and Thorpe will chase the legend of Mark Spitz, whose seven gold medals in 1972 remain the greatest haul in Olympics history. Spitz won 24 national titles, but they came in four events, in two of the freestyles and both butterflys.

History isn't the issue here, as Phelps lamented the absence of Thorpe, whom he called "the strongest, most exciting swimmer in the world." That assessment was disputed by fellow American Lenny Krayzelburg.

"There's no question that Michael right now is the most dominant swimmer in the world," said Krayzelburg, the Olympic champion in the 200 backstroke who lost that event to Phelps last Wednesday. "The way Michael is swimming right now, if he's standing on the blocks, he's the favorite. He just won national championships in events he usually doesn't even swim, and beat Olympic gold medalists. He has made a serious statement."

Krayzelburg and Phelps share a sponsor, Speedo, and an agent, Peter Carlisle of Octagon. Those associations further Phelps' distinctive nature in a city that builds itself as America's amateur sports capital. The Indiana University Natatorium on the Indiana-Purdue-Indianapolis campus is a short walk from the headquarters of the NCAA and the National Federation of State High Athletic Associations, but Phelps will never answer to either bureaucracy.

He turned professional in October 2001, a few weeks into his junior year at Towson High. Most of his U.S. teammates gained dual-meet experience in college, and David Marsh, the U.S. coach today, cracked that the Duel in the Pool will "be Michael's college experience, except that he has a lot better team."

Phelps isn't just entered in any three events, as the grueling 400 IM is described as the decathlon of swimming.

"Michael wants to take on the trifecta," Marsh said. "Knowing Bob [Bowman, Phelps' coach at the NBAC] as I do, he puts Michael through harder practices than what he's going to go through in the Duel in the Pool. It won't be the first time he's been challenged on the mental and personal front."

Nonetheless, it won't be a normal day for Phelps. His mother, Debbie, and father, Fred, are here. So are big sisters Whitney, who last saw him race at the 2000 Olympic trials here, and Hillary.

Phelps is at the start of a four-month stretch that will make for an intense pre-Olympic year. That period will conclude with the Summer Nationals Aug. 5-9 at the University of Maryland. In July, he and Thorpe could finally go head to head at the world championships in Barcelona. Where will Phelps finish this month? In none other than Australia, making promotional appearances.

"I don't know if they're going to use Thorpe's absence as an excuse," Phelps said of the Duel in the Pool. "I hope they bring their A game."

That's the only one Phelps knows.

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