Phelps weathers storm at trials

200 IM victory qualifies him for record 5 individual events

July 13, 2004|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

LONG BEACH, Calif. - At 6:01 Pacific Time last evening, the public address announcer at the U.S. Olympic team trials for swimming directed the attention of 9,817 to the awards ceremony for the men's 200-meter backstroke, which was won in world-record time by Aaron Peirsol.

"For obvious reasons," the voice on the speakers said, "Michael will not be participating."

Michael Phelps, the runner-up, had not left the arena; he was just in the practice pool. Having staked down an Athens Olympic berth in a fourth individual event, Phelps was about to grab another spot that provided yet two more historical twists to a groundbreaking career.

Twenty-five minutes after he challenged Peirsol, Phelps romped in the 200 individual medley, but he still wasn't done. Thirty-six minutes later, he won his semifinal in the 100-meter butterfly, the event that tonight will provide his 17th and final race in a qualifying meet that is only a test run.

Team Phelps still hasn't decided if he will swim the 200 freestyle and 200 backstroke next month in Athens, Greece. He has two days to decide if he'll go after Peirsol in the latter event, and might have more before a call must be made on whether he'll challenge Australia's Ian Thorpe in the former.

The only thing his coach sounded certain about is that he's about to have a rest, a "taper" that should make him faster in Athens.

"Where can he be in 31 days?" Bob Bowman said. "That's what matters. In reality, no one is going to remember what happened here in another two days."


Phelps became the first American man to qualify to swim five individual events at the Olympics. His 200 IM made him only the second man in the history of a qualifying meet that began in 1920 to win four events.

The first, of course, was Mark Spitz, whose record seven gold medals from 1972 provide motivation. The two finally met Saturday, after Phelps won the 200 butterfly. Spitz will also drape the medal over the winner of tonight's 100 butterfly final, where Phelps will be an underdog to another world record-holder from Longhorn Aquatics, Ian Crocker.

It will be a breeze, compared to what Phelps just went through, as he raced eight times in 33 hours, three times in 66 minutes last night. Was it the hardest session the North Baltimore Aquatic Club swimmer had ever faced?

"Definitely, for sure," Phelps said. "I thought I would be in more pain than I am now. I am tired."

Asked what's it's in the Austin, Texas, water that makes he and Crocker so fast, Peirsol said, "Pacifica," a beer. In between races, Phelps chugged Carnation Instant Breakfast.

Phelps said, "I know I can do that schedule in Athens," but Bowman had some uneasy moments.

Take away a lousy third and final turn in the 200 backstroke, and Phelps still wouldn't have beaten Peirsol, who dropped his two-year-old standard from 1:55.15 to 1:54.74. Phelps was second in 1:55.86, the sixth-fastest time ever.

"He's a tough cookie," Peirsol said.

The margin was in the gray area, offering nothing conclusive to make Bowman commit to the event or drop it. That would have happened if his 200 IM had suffered, but Phelps won in 1:56.71, No. 3 on the one-man roll call of history's seven fastest times.

"I really thought immediately after the back that Michael had reached his limit," Bowman said as he prepared for the 100 butterfly semis. "That race [the 200 IM] scared me. I was ready to drop the 200 back, but now, why not?"

On a night when Natalie Coughlin, the female counterpart to Phelps at the start of last summer, was upset in the 100 freestyle, the 19-year-old from Rodgers Forge had to deal with as many emotions as he's had earlobe pricks for lactate tests.

He didn't like seeing Peirsol jump on lane line and celebrate. Phelps matched a mark of Spitz's, but he didn't have time to process the disappointment that followed 200 IM runner-up Ryan Lochte.

Training partner Kevin Clements was unable to deliver on the promise he showed in August, when he became the second-fastest American ever. Clements never found the right gear here and slowed from semis to final, where he was sixth.

Mount St. Joseph grad Tommy Hannan, now living in the state of Washington, was unable to duplicate his 2000 Olympic berth, as he was fifth, in 2:02.60.

Elite company

Michael Phelps joined Mark Spitz as the only man to notch four wins in a single year at the U.S. Olympic trials:


Mark Spitz...1972...4

Michael Phelps...2004...4

Charlie Hickcox...1968...3

Tom Dolan...1996...3

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