Michael Phelps

The Road To Athens

Phelps puts golden ambitions on trial in California

Swimmer's bid for history starts in earnest today at Olympic selection meet

Olympics

July 07, 2004|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

LONG BEACH, CALIF. — Phelps today

400 IM

Record (holder): 4:09:09 (Phelps) Outlook: He expects to be pushed by Erik Vendt

LONG BEACH, Calif. - The local forecast calls for highs in the 80s and humidity that Baltimore would envy, with a strong chance of history.

The biggest crowds ever to watch an American swim meet other than the Olympic Games will cram into a temporary, outdoor facility here over the next week. As the sun sets on Southern California, conversation will likely center on a teen from Rodgers Forge.

Nearly a year after he starred at the 2003 world swimming championships, Michael Phelps is fitter, more physically mature and ready to perform a prelude to the Athens Olympics, which begin in 37 days.

Phelps typically doesn't offer quotes that wind up on message boards, but he let down his guard and placed his tongue firmly in cheek yesterday. His story could be the biggest to come out of the Olympics, so Phelps was asked: What's his best-case scenario?

"I could," Phelps said, "get 15 gold medals if I wanted."

He was joking, which North Baltimore Aquatic Club coach Bob Bowman hoped was not lost on Australia, where Phelps' aspirations are met with skepticism.

Then again, maybe Phelps was talking about what he plans to accomplish between Athens and the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Here are some pertinent numbers: Phelps is 19. He has entered six events at the trials, and could race as many as 17 times in seven days, starting with the preliminaries and final of the 400-meter individual medley today.

Here are two facts he is up against: No American has ever entered more than four individual events at the Olympics; and the gold standard for a Summer Olympics athlete is seven first-place finishes, which Phelps wants to challenge by tacking as many as three relays onto his Athens program.

To further frame the stakes, the man who struck seven golds in 1972 was also trotted out to meet the press yesterday. Mark Spitz arrived under the mistaken impression that Phelps was going to enter all 11 events in which he qualified to swim here.

"I'd like to say that seven gold medals is not an event, it was the journey of my career," Spitz said. "It may be the journey of his career. I have a feeling of empathy. Nobody remembers times; they remember gold medals."

That bare essential agrees with Phelps and Bowman, who has said that his protM-igM-i will enter only those Olympic events in which he can contend for gold.

"I'm going to try something new," Phelps said. "I'm going to try something no one else has ever done before. The work Bob and I have done the last few years - everything has been a stepping stone. There's no better time to try it."

Biggest decisions

Phelps turned 19 a week ago today. The trials will conclude a week from today, and he'll have another 24 hours to confer with Olympic men's coach Eddie Reese and inform the U.S. Olympic Committee of his intentions for Athens.

Something could go wrong - he missed a race in Indianapolis in April because of food poisoning - and Phelps could pull out of an event here. Or, he could win or place second in all six, but decide to drop one from his Olympic program.

"They're all hard in their own ways, because so many competitors specialize in one event," Phelps said. "Taking on the best in the world race after race is challenging. You can't narrow it to one event."

Maybe, but two hazards stand out.

"He's human, like everybody else," Aaron Peirsol said. Peirsol, who beat Phelps twice at the Santa Clara International, is the world record-holder in the 200 backstroke, which will conclude Monday.

The next day brings the final of the 100 butterfly, in which Ian Crocker, another former University of Texas star, had a huge breakthrough at the 2003 worlds that wrested the gold medal and world record from Phelps.

The night before in Barcelona, Phelps became the first person to establish world records in different events on the same day. In 48 minutes, no less.

In nearly every meet since, whether it was in Australia in November or Annapolis in March, Phelps has gone to meets and entered two or three events each day. That simulated the Olympic schedule, which is the framework here.

Exhausting schedule

He wants to race eight times on Sunday and Monday, three times alone on Monday evening, when the men's schedule lists the finals of the 200 backstroke and 200 IM, and the semifinals of the 100 butterfly.

Phelps can consider an outrageous workload because he is so far ahead of the pack in some events. His hump event on Monday night is the 200 IM, in which he has a four-second edge on the second seed, training partner Kevin Clements.

Two hours before Phelps faced questions yesterday, the embattled head of USA Track and Field held a teleconference. Some people are interested more in the BALCO doping scandal than that sport's Olympic trials, which will begin Friday in Sacramento.

Here, Phelps and his competition are the thing.

NBC will break away from Saturday's track coverage for Phelps' effort in the 200 butterfly, a neat contrast to 2000, when the trials media guide didn't have a bio on a 15-year-old who became America's youngest male Olympian in two generations.

"I think Michael is the best athlete in the world today, in any sport," said backstroker Lenny Krayzelburg, the American star at the Sydney Olympics.

"He's truly been incredible. He might be on the brink of history."

Olympic swim trials

Who: 650 U.S. swimmers

What: Qualifying for the 2004 Olympics. The first two in each of 13 events earn berths in Athens, Greece.

When: Today to next Wednesday

Where: Long Beach (Calif.) Swim Center

TV: NBC (chs. 11, 4). Friday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 8 p.m.; July 18, 1 p.m. (tape)

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