LONG BEACH, Calif. - Two months ago in Silicon Valley, Michael Phelps had a screw-up that would have been a major scandal on a bigger stage.
Phelps didn't see the revised preliminary sheets for the final day of the Santa Clara (Calif.) International. He stretched on the pool deck as his heat of the 100-meter backstroke took off, and the public address announcer informed the audience Phelps was an apparent scratch.
Coach Bob Bowman politely asked an official if Phelps could occupy a vacant lane in the final heat, which was about to start. The proceedings were halted, and Phelps was hustled into an outside lane.
This was not a summer league at a neighborhood pool, but a Grand Prix meet in a sport as regimented as it gets. If Joe Blow of the Ramsbottom Swim Club had made that request, a stern voice would have said, "Sorry." But, like Michael Jordan, Phelps is trying to make his own rules as he maneuvers on the high wire.
Can Phelps become the face of the 2004 Olympics, yet remain just one of the guys on the American swim team?
His support crew wants to avoid the appearance of special treatment, but his status and workload require that Phelps handle the demands on his terms, when possible. The people who have had to live with that include none other than Mark Spitz, whom Phelps figures to finally meet tomorrow at the U.S. Olympic team trials.
Phelps is the favorite in the 200-meter butterfly, the event in which he set his first world record. The first-place award will be bestowed by Spitz, who included that event in his 1972 haul of seven gold medals, the benchmark that Phelps wants to challenge at the Athens Olympics.
Phelps refers to Spitz as an icon, but adds he wants to be viewed as the first Michael Phelps, not another Mark Spitz.
Golf tournaments save a spot for Tiger Woods. Cal Ripken broke baseball tradition by rooming alone. And Jordan refined the star treatment template with his Jordan Rules. He's the athlete Phelps most admires, because Jordan "changed his sport."
Phelps' image appears nine times in the official event program here and at the center of a giant canvas mural that adorns the main entrance to the pool. He is probably the first competitor at the U.S. trials ever to be accompanied by what, in essence, is a flip-flopped bodyguard.
One of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club's deck passes is used by an employee of Octagon, the agency that represents Phelps. Sean Foley, who once swam for the University of Texas, towers over the 6-foot-4 Phelps as he saunters from the warm-down pool to the staging area.
"Believe it or not, within the secure area, Sean just watches Michael's stuff," Bowman said. "We've lost too many kickboards, water bottles, simply because people want something of Michael's. Outside the secure area, Michael sometimes has to deal with aggressive autograph seekers. That's why Sean's there."
Within the competitive arena itself, Bowman is steadfast about avoiding the kind of controversy that broke out when Australia bent its rules to allow Ian Thorpe into the 400 freestyle after he false-started out of his Olympic trials.
If Phelps carries over his six-event trials program to Athens, he could race three times in 70 minutes on Aug. 19. Last month, the sport's international governing body moved a medal ceremony to make that hat trick more feasible, but a USA Swimming official said that adjustment wasn't generated on this side of the Atlantic.
"When word got out that people were discussing that change, I asked Bob about it, and he said he didn't want any special favors for Michael," said Everett Uchiyama, the national team director of USA Swimming. "We did not request that change. I just think the whole world is looking at the potential of everything that Michael is going to swim."
Phelps was unaware of the change.
"That's news to me," he said last month. "Things were changed in 2000, as well. I don't know, if you look at some of the major athletes in other sports, strings get pulled. It could be a sign that swimming is changing, due to the athletes."
Which gets back to his long-awaited handshake with Spitz. Without Spitz's benchmark 1972 performance, Phelps wouldn't be in line for a possible $1 million bonus from Speedo.
Phelps is loyal to the people who sign his paychecks, and Spitz is not a Speedo endorser. Phelps has become the poster boy for USA Swimming, and there have been long stretches when Spitz has been aloof to the sport in America.
Actually, Phelps has already followed Spitz's advice.
"If I get the chance to talk to him, I wouldn't talk about swimming," Spitz said Tuesday. "I'd tell him the same thing I told Ian Thorpe: Make sure you spend enough time on yourself."
How Michael Phelps did yesterday at the U.S. Olympic trials:
Preliminary: 1:48.40 (2nd place)
Semifinal: 1:47.42 (1st place)
Phelps events today
200 butterfly prelims and semifinals
Record (holder): 1:55:93 (Phelps)
200 freestyle final
Record (holder): 1:44.06 (Thorpe)