Phelps set to jump into '04 at college meet in Alabama

NBAC star is entered in 6 events this weekend


January 17, 2004|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

AUBURN, Ala. - The president of the International Olympic Committee picked two athletes to stand out in Athens, Greece, come August: track star Marion Jones and swimmer Michael Phelps.

When the Ravens met the Tennessee Titans in an NFL playoff game, Phelps was the honorary captain, the guy in khakis standing alongside linebacker Ray Lewis and quarterback Steve McNair.

Those aren't the neatest things that have happened to the 18-year-old at the start of what could be a most memorable Olympic year.

Phelps and 17 teammates from the North Baltimore Aquatic Club will be competing today and tomorrow at Auburn University, added starters as the defending NCAA men's champions take on Southern California, and their strong women's teams compete.

When was the last time the Tigers added an outside club to a dual meet of this caliber?

"It's probably the first time I have ever done something like this," said David Marsh, the Auburn coach since 1990.

Marsh is one of NBAC coach Bob Bowman's best friends. When Kevin Clements' NCAA eligibility was done here, Marsh steered him to the NBAC, where he has become the second-fastest American ever in the 200 individual medley.

NBAC teammate Emily Goetsch, the reigning national champion in the 100 butterfly, delayed her enrollment at Southern Cal until later this year, with the blessing of USC coach Mark Schubert.

Those links are vital, but Bowman and the rest of the NBAC traveling party know that having the hottest swimmer in the world on your roster opens doors.

Schubert was the head Olympic coach of the U.S. men in 2000, when Phelps made his international debut. Marsh headed the American staff at the world championships last summer, when Phelps stamped himself as the fastest all-around swimmer ever and a serious threat to match the biggest medal haul in Olympic history, the seven gold medals won by Mark Spitz in 1972.

"To be the first club invited down here by David Marsh is pretty big," Phelps said. "To be respected that much as a team, to be able to come to a meet like this is priceless. Having as many national team members and world championship medalists as we're going to have this weekend, this is going to be fun."

Phelps will compete in two individual events and a relay both today and tomorrow. With Australian rival Ian Thorpe ending his foray into the 200 IM, the initial race here could provide a sneak peak at the Olympic medal stand.

Phelps lowered the world record in the 200 IM four times last summer. Today, Phelps will be challenged by Clements, the national runner-up, and Auburn's George Bovell, a Trinidad and Tobago international who was the world's second-fastest in 2003. USC could enter Ous Mellouli, a Tunisian who took the bronze medal in the 400 IM at last July's worlds.

The women's 200 IM could also be loaded. USC junior Kaitlin Sandeno won the event at the U.S. Summer Nationals. Auburn postgrad Maggie Bowen was a world championship finalist. The NBAC's entries range from Marianne Limpert, 31, who took the silver medal at the 1996 Olympics, to Katie Hoff, 14, who had a December breakthrough that made her the fifth-fastest American last year.

Phelps will also go in the 100 freestyle and 800 relay today, and the 100 backstroke, 400 IM and 400 relay tomorrow.

He last competed in mid-December, at the NBAC's Christmas Invitational. After a long and demanding year that included two trips to Australia and one to Spain, Phelps was fatigued physically and emotionally.

"We went through a big down period, where things weren't going well," Phelps said. "When we got back from Australia [in early December], it wasn't a good time. From then on, there's sort of been a new me. I just have a new look on things. Since then, we've done some serious training. The last month has probably been some of the best training I have ever done in my life."

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