Phelps looking to fill in blanks

Performances in Florida expected to help decide Olympic swim program

5th individual event possible

His and rivals' results in freestyle, backstroke could produce final word

Swimming

February 11, 2004|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

ORLANDO, Fla. - When the media play 20 questions with Michael Phelps, he knows what to expect.

What does the world's hottest swimmer, 18 and still growing, have for breakfast to quell his ravenous appetite?

How does he feel about his quest to match Mark Spitz's Olympic heroics of 1972, the possibility that Phelps could become only the second athlete to win seven gold medals in a single games?

The third recurring question is the one he's not ready to answer: Might he attempt to one-up Spitz and go for gold in not just four, but five individual events?

Phelps won world or national titles in eight of the 13 individual Olympic events last year. That embarrassment of riches was capped at last August's Summer Nationals, where he posted an unprecedented five titles.

He'll embark on a similar quest tonight at the Spring Nationals, where speculation will increase over the specific program he'll attempt at July's Olympic trials, and then at the games themselves a month later in Athens, Greece.

"We have something in mind that we want to happen, and this meet will definitely have some impact on that," said Phelps, whose intended Olympic program is known by only one other person - his coach, Bob Bowman. "If someone puts out a huge time that is a statement, that could affect us."

Phelps made a lifetime's worth of such proclamations last year. While other Olympians narrow their focus, he continues to broaden his.

It's not enough that he holds world records in three events. Last year, he ranked No. 2 on the planet in three others, and tonight's schedule, which has Phelps in the 100 freestyle and the 200 backstroke, underlines the decisions he and Bowman face.

Phelps will go after his third straight national title in the 200 back, where world-record holder Aaron Peirsol is the only man who has gone faster since the 2000 Olympics.

This summer, Phelps could challenge the University of Texas star, who, like most collegians, is passing on this meet, but that would create a conflict in his Olympic program, which presumably will include the 100 and 200 butterflies and the 200 and 400 individual medleys.

When Peirsol beat him in the Santa Clara Invitational last May, that was the last time Phelps swam as an underdog. On paper, he'll begin this meet the same way.

The 100 free field includes Jason Lezak and Neil Walker, the only Americans who went faster last year, but two months of emphasis on speed work and added maturity - Phelps will be eligible to set national age-group records until June 30, when he turns 19 - could change that pecking order.

"We've added some extra speed work to give us that extra boost of immediate energy and immediate speed," said Phelps, the sport's strongest closer but, by comparison, a slow starter. "I had even splits when I won the 100 free last August. Something needs to change."

As he built his resume in the butterflies and IMs, Phelps lagged behind America's best freestylers, let alone international aces like Australia's Ian Thorpe, Russian Alexander Popov and Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands.

Maybe Phelps doesn't possess enough speed to challenge them in the 100 free this summer, but the 200 free is another matter. Only Thorpe went faster last year, and there are hints Phelps could add that race to his audacious Olympic program.

The 200 free is his only event tomorrow. Phelps will go in the 100 butterfly Friday and the 200 IM Saturday, when the meet concludes.

Phelps began the Olympic year by training through a meet at Auburn University last month. Now, he has shaved his body and tapered his training.

Along with 19 teammates from the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, he'll be racing in front of a crowd of family and friends at the YMCA Aquatic Center, a nondescript facility.

All Phelps wants to do is fire a salvo or two that could send shock waves all the way to Australia.

Event at a glance

What: USA Swimming's Spring Nationals

Site: Orlando, Fla.

When: Through Saturday

Michael Phelps' events: 100- and 200-meter freestyles, 200 backstroke, 100 butterfly, 200 individual medley

Climbing the charts

By the end of the week and still four months from his 19th birthday, Michael Phelps could rank among the top 15 Americans in career national championships. Here are some selected names on that all-time list:

Rank, Name .............. Years................ No.

1. Tracy Caulkins ... 1977-84 ............ 48

2. Janet Evans ........ 1987-95 ............45

3. J. Weissmuller ... 1922-28 ........... 38

8. J. Thompson ....... 1989- ................ 26

9t. Mark Spitz ........ 1966-72 ............ 24

18t. D. Meyer .......... 1967-71 ............ 19

27t. D. Schollander . 1962-67 ............ 17

31t. Tom Dolan ....... 1994-00 ............ 16

31t. Tom Wilkens ....1996- ................ 16

40t. M. Phelps .......... 2001- ............... 15

On Baltimoresun.com

Log on to http://www.baltimoresun.com/sports/ to ask Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps a question. He will respond to readers next week.

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