Clements making more than trial run

Phelps' training partner has designs on medaling at Summer Olympics


July 05, 2004|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

With 13 individual events, a roster limit of 26 and relays to fill, the U.S. Olympic trials for swimming produce delayed celebrations.

Winners take a bow immediately. When enough stars have done double duty, runners-up get the same treatment, but there are no awards ceremonies per se. That bit of pomp was canned after one too many third-place finishers removed the medals from around their necks and dumped them in the nearest trash receptacles.

Kevin Clements, who knows the pain of that close call, is ready to drop the nagging tag of being identified as the training partner of Michael Phelps and become an Olympian himself.

Clements joined the North Baltimore Aquatic Club in spring 2003 with a dual purpose, to push Phelps and maximize his own potential. Last August, he became the second-fastest American ever in the 200-meter individual medley, behind you-know-who. That performance and some mammoth work since have him in prime position to keep climbing a ladder he painstakingly ascended to four years ago in Indianapolis.

Midway through his career at Auburn University, Clements opened the 2000 trials with a fifth in the 400 freestyle. A few days later, he placed fourth in the 400 IM. The 200 IM then brought real heartache. Clements finished third, behind Tom Dolan and Tom Wilkens, one spot shy of a berth in Sydney, Australia.

Clements is part of a 12-person contingent from the NBAC that qualified for the U.S. trials, which open Wednesday at the Long Beach (Calif.) Swim Stadium. The dozen range in age from Courtney Kalisz, an up-and-coming 14-year-old from Fallston, to 24-year-old men like Clements and Jamie Barone, who came out of the low-key program at Loyola College.

It would be a heady accomplishment for Barone to make one of the breaststroke finals; Clements aims to medal in Athens.

Clements said "the four years [since Indianapolis] went by pretty fast," but there were times when his interest in the sport swooned.

Clements completed his Auburn eligibility in 2002 and qualified for the next year's major meets at the Summer Nationals, but then kicked back and played club water polo for the Tigers. He enjoyed the Christmas break back home in Rowland Heights, Calif., a bit too much.

"After I was done my college eligibility, I could do whatever I wanted," said Clements, 6 feet 4, 185 pounds, who has appeared on the back cover of Speedo brochures with Amanda Beard and received more mainstream modeling offers. "I did. When I was home for Christmas, I put off getting back in the pool, but things changed when I returned for that spring semester."

Auburn coach David Marsh informed Clements he could no longer train with the band trying to win an NCAA title he had left behind, but a compelling alternative soon followed.

Marsh is one of NBAC coach Bob Bowman's best friends in the business. Bowman needed a comparable talent to challenge Phelps in practice. Clements wanted a change of scenery.

"This sport can be monotonous," Clements said. "If you're only driven by the clock in practice, you're going to go crazy. Going head to head with Michael every day for over a year, that gives you the kind of mental edge you need."

That move wasn't made until after the 2003 Spring Nationals, in none other than Indianapolis. The Duel in the Pool piggybacked onto that meet, and Clements was in such sorry shape, he pulled out against the Australians.

He relocated his work ethic in Baltimore. The training Clements did with Phelps wasn't evident at the world championships, where he finished seventh in the 200 IM, in 2 minutes, 1.51 seconds. It was two weeks later, at the 2003 Summer Nationals in College Park, where Clements followed another Phelps world record with his own breakthrough, all the way down to 1:59.56.

Only five men have ever gone faster.

Clements had spent the previous months in the spare bedroom at the house Phelps shares with his mother in Rodgers Forge, but late last summer he moved into Barone's apartment. Lately, the living room futon has been occupied by Joey Clements, Kevin's brother who joined the NBAC after his junior year at Arizona State.

"Joey and I roomed together when we trained at altitude in Colorado Springs," Clements said. "For an hour and a half each night, I laid awake in bed, wondering what it was going to be like stepping up onto the blocks in Long Beach."

Clements has to wait a week for the 200 IM. Only four men have faster seed times in the 400 IM, but he has designs on an Olympic berth in the 200 freestyle later this week. Phelps heads that field. The next five seeds were all 2000 Olympians, but wild cards like Aaron Peirsol, Ian Crocker and Clements want to at least enter the 800 freestyle relay picture.

"I know that people will say I'm just trying for the relay there, but I'd love to get a spot swimming the open 200 free," Clements said. "You never know what's going to happen in a trials year. Time is irrelevant. You have goal times that you're trying to attain, but all it comes down to is place."

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