Could there be a 4-minute IM in Phelps' future?

`Impossible' barrier might be broken in water, too



April 25, 2004|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Break out the sunglasses. The glare from golden anniversaries is making it hard to see.

Locally, the Orioles are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the return of major league baseball to Baltimore. Nationally, the struggle for civil rights will be renewed with commemorations of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling.

Internationally, there will be reflection on the events of May 6, 1954, when Roger Bannister became the first man to run a mile in under four minutes.

FOR THE RECORD - In Sunday's editions, a photo caption incorrectly indicated that Roger Bannister, first man to break the four-minute mile, had died.

Notions of man's limits sufficiently shattered, Bannister's record stood all of six weeks. A generation ago, John Walker and Steve Scott could fall out of bed and break the once-mythical four-minute barrier. Five years ago, Hicham el Guerrouj dropped the mile mark to 3:43.13.

Bannister never won a medal in the Olympics. The mile has never been on the Olympic program. In the United States, the metric movement gave high schools the distance of 1,600 meters, yet anyone who has ever been timed in a phys ed class for four laps can appreciate Bannister's pioneering performance, which resonates like 60 home runs or breaking par.

It still means something.

That brings us to Michael Phelps, who dreams beyond Olympic gold medal tallies.

Joe Fan regards swimming as a way to avoid drowning, not as a spectator sport. Phelps wants to break through the noise on talk shows and ESPN, and force the casual observer - let alone a billion Chinese in 2008 - to consider it.

One avenue could be his inevitable assault on another four-minute barrier, in the 400-meter individual medley. There is no single time from Johnny Weissmuller or Mark Spitz that translates clearly in the sporting consciousness. Phelps could produce a landmark time in that esoteric pursuit of all four swim strokes that means something even to the layman.

Pools, suits and stroke technique have gotten faster since American Ted Stickles became the first man to swim the 400 IM in under five minutes, in 1961. The year before, the event wasn't even on the Olympic program. In 1985, when Phelps was born, the world record was 4:17.41. At the 2000 Olympics, Tom Dolan, the finest all-around swimmer of his era, lowered his world record to 4:11.76.

By then, Phelps had begun forcing everyone in the swim business to think outside the box about what is possible in the sport.

When he became the first to notch five world records in a single meet last July, Phelps lowered his world record in the 400 IM to 4:09.09. That came in Barcelona, less than a month past his 18th birthday, at the end of a daunting stretch of 13 races in six days.

Rested, Phelps was probably ready to go under 4:07 last year. This summer, the 400 IM will be the first event in his Olympic program. His backstroke and freestyle have visibly improved to the point where he could go under 4:04 this year. Don't look for that kind of effort in Athens, however, as placement means more than time in an Olympic year.

Phelps still has 13 months left as a teen-ager. Eventually he won't be able to endure the training demands that have become his routine, but he has done little of the weight training that makes other swimmers faster. Soon, his focus will turn to supplanting Ian Thorpe as the fastest all-around freestyler ever. Before then, his background and maturity could merge in a performance that transcends his sport.

Thorpe's tight schedule

Australia Swimming, the national governing body Down Under, is expected to announce tomorrow that Craig Stevens won't swim the 400 freestyle in Athens. That will open the door for Thorpe, who was disqualified in the Aussie trials, to be his replacement and defend his Olympic title Aug. 14.

That would mean a less fresh Thorpe for the 200 free, which will be contested the next two days in Athens. The gap between Thorpe and Phelps was four seconds in 2002. Last year it was less than one, and the event remains a possibility for Phelps' Olympic program.

Thorpe and 12 other members of the Australian Olympic team will be at the Janet Evans Invitational in Long Beach, Calif., June 10-13.

Et cetera

Joanna Zeiger's bid to earn another Olympic triathlon berth was dealt a serious blow when back problems forced her to drop out during the bike portion of an April 18 race in Honolulu. Amanda Pagon finished seventh. Neither is on the U.S. team that will compete in the May 8 world championships in Portugal. ... Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach, will begin and end the week in Colorado Springs, Colo. He, Phelps and others are wrapping up an Olympic training camp today, and Bowman is one of the five finalists for the USOC's National Coach of the Year Award, which will be presented there a week from today. ... Phelps, Lance Armstrong, tennis ace Roger Federer, Italian motorcyclist Valentino Rossi, racecar driver Michael Schumacher and English rugby hero Jonny Wilkinson are finalists for the Laureus World Sportsman of the Year honor, which will be awarded next weekend in Portugal.

Games at a glance

When: Aug. 13-29

Where: Athens, Greece

Sports: 28

Countries: 202

Athletes: 10,500

Events: 296


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