Measure of a Swimmer

Michael Phelps: The Road to Athens

From flipper feet to a long trunk, Phelps represents a one-man body shop of what a swimmer should be

March 09, 2004|By Paul McMullen | Sun Staff

One in a series of occasional articles on Michael Phelps and his path to the 2004 Olympics.

The late Doc Counsilman was a World War II pilot before he revolutionized swimming. He applied physics to the sport, but in addition to lift and drag and force vectors, Counsilman instructed his fellow coaches to consider dog breeding.

Recruit Labrador retrievers, not dachshunds. The big dog is a natural swimmer, quickly learning to pick up his hind feet and swim with the front. The little one is just as likely to drown.

Is that ability innate? Is it a product of body type?

Michael Phelps has been working his mom for a pet since last summer. He wants to bring home an English bulldog. That breed needs less exercise, but is it a coincidence that the most versatile swimmer in history's first wish was for a Labrador retriever?

Is Phelps more hydrodynamic than his competitors? Is he a stranger to oxygen debt because his training has stressed aerobic conditioning or because he has found a more efficient way to swim? What's more important, his body or the way he uses it?

Sport is as much art as it is science. Distinguishing Phelps' acquired skills from his physical tools opens an endless debate about nature vs. nurture and underscores the folly of attempting to wrap his gifts in separate boxes.

Phelps has become so efficient, his visits to a physical therapist have gone from twice a week to twice a year, but the more forceful he becomes in the water, the wobblier he gets on land. A multi-sport athlete as a boy, he can still knock a baseball over a fence, but Phelps wouldn't want to be timed going around the bases.

Phelps took a physics course at Towson High, but for all he knows, Bernoulli was a champion backstroker from Belgium and Newton makes a mean fig cookie. The physiologists can measure his wingspan, quantify his ability to process energy and provide 15 statistical parameters per lap per race, but the only observation that matters is this: Phelps can manipulate water like no human since Moses.

  • "We will never be able to design more efficient swimmers."

    -- Cecil Colwin

  • A venerable coach and great thinker about swimming, Colwin takes an annual spring break from his home in Ottawa to watch Phelps train with the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. He notes Phelps is a blend of body types, a mix of ectomorph and mesomorph, the former long and lean, the latter thicker and more muscular.

    Phelps stands 6 feet 4 and weighs 195 pounds, with the broad shoulders and narrow waist that are fairly common around a pool.

    All things being equal, he needs fewer strokes than the average man to cover a 50-meter pool, but Phelps isn't as tall as Tom Malchow (6-6), the previous world-record holder in the 200 butterfly, and his nearly 6-7 wingspan doesn't approach the 6-11 reach of Michael Gross, a German who owned the event for much of the 1980s. His build is reminiscent of Mike Barrowman, a Montgomery County native who raised the bar in the 200 breaststroke during the 1990s.

Swimmers are always looking to improve their core strength, and Phelps has a higher baseline there.

An ancient Roman architect inspired Leonardo da Vinci's depiction of a man of perfect symmetry, and the best-seller The Da Vinci Code had readers measuring themselves. Divide your height by the distance from the top of your navel to the bottom of your feet. Most likely the quotient will be 1.618, what's called the "divine proportion," a number found throughout nature.

In Phelps' case, a photo study shows that quotient to be more than 1.7. He buys pants with a 34 waist and 32 length, and his inseam is shorter than that of Hicham El Guerrouj, the world-record holder in the mile. The Moroccan stands a shade over 5-9, but is all legs. Phelps has relatively short legs and a long trunk, an advantage in the water.

"What does Murray Stephens say?" said Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach, quoting the founder of the NBAC. "The more wet surface, the faster the boat. The fastest sailboats are long and thin. Same with swimmers."

One in five children can hyper-extend a body joint. Four months before his 19th birthday, Phelps remains double-jointed in his elbows, knees and ankles, which allows him to explore positions few other swimmers can. His shoe size is 14, and those feet act like giant flippers.

That body has been pushed.

The NBAC's Senior Performance Group does not observe the Sabbath. Bowman wants Phelps and his other top swimmers to train 365 days a year, with two practices 40 percent of those days. Over the past four years, Phelps might have gotten in six months more work than a college swimmer. Because the momentum of his career hasn't been disrupted, he is adept at maintaining momentum in the pool.

Phelps still holds a national age-group record in the 10-and-under category, so he wasn't a blank slate when Bowman began to coach him in 1997. He had followed his two older sisters to the NBAC, where he found an outlet for the energy that frustrated some of his schoolteachers.

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