Next mission, Olympic gold

Trials: With qualifying complete, he could swim in nine individual and relay events in Athens.

July 14, 2004|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

LONG BEACH, Calif. - Three hundred and fifty days ago, Michael Phelps fulfilled a mission in Barcelona, Spain, that lifted him to the top of the sport of swimming and made him the point man in the hype for the Athens Olympics.

Nothing that happened in the past week has changed the influence and status of a teen who just last year graduated from Towson High School.

Phelps completed another chapter last night, when he finished second in the 100-meter butterfly at the U.S. Olympic Trials. The gut-turning competition that makes or breaks athletic careers concludes tonight.

On the eighth day, Phelps will rest, finally.

Though he didn't win his final race, Phelps climbed out of the pool to a standing ovation from part of the crowd. He turned to the fans, thrust both arms in the air and let out an emphatic "Yes!"

Experts from Australia and France and Japan who came here to chronicle Phelps' achievements cannot recall a man ever attempting to swim five individual events in the Olympics. He is qualified to compete in six in Athens, where Olympic swimming begins one month from today.

With three relays, Phelps could compete in up to nine events, though he might drop an individual event. Phelps needs some upsets to match the seven gold medals that American Mark Spitz won in Munich, Germany, in 1972, but seems destined to win more medals than any other Olympic swimmer in a single Games.

Phelps turned professional at 16, is accustomed to the spotlight and will be all of 23 when the Beijing Olympics rolls around in four years. He doesn't like to lose, but isn't afraid to.

"I want to do something no one else has ever done before," said Phelps, who offers stock answers to the Spitz questions. "What we are trying to attempt, it isn't going to be easy."

Comparisons to Spitz picked up speed at the 2003 world championships last July, when Phelps became the first swimmer to set world records in different events on the same day and the first to post five in one meet. The comparisons increased when his agent negotiated a $1 million bonus from Speedo if Phelps matches Spitz's seven golds.

Spitz was the medal presenter for the 200-meter butterfly event here. After Saturday's race, he finally met Phelps and raised his arm in triumph.

After last night's 100 butterfly, the man on top of the awards stand was Ian Crocker, who also beat Phelps in Barcelona.

That 2003 world championship race was an upset; the result here was not. Neither was Monday's loss in the 200-meter backstroke to Aaron Peirsol. Both Crocker and Peirsol were pushed by Phelps to world records here.

Counting preliminaries and semifinals, Phelps raced 17 times in Long Beach. If he and Bob Bowman, his coach at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, choose to do so, he could race as many as 21 times in Athens.

Asked last night about Phelps' Olympic plans, Bowman said: "I have a good idea, but I need to talk to some people. We'll do what he wants to do, but I have a feeling he'll listen to me."

The 6-foot-4, 195-pound teen grew into perhaps the most versatile swimmer ever on a voracious appetite - for mileage at the Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center in Mount Washington and for breakfast at Pete's Grille on Greenmount Avenue.

Four years ago in Sydney, Australia, when he finished fifth in the 200-meter butterfly, Phelps became the youngest American male to compete in the Olympics in any sport since 1952. Since then, he has logged up to 45 miles in training laps a week. Over the next month, at U.S. training camps at Stanford University in California and in Mallorca, Spain, he'll scale it back to as little as 20.

He needs to rest for maybe the most-ambitious schedule in the history of the modern Olympics. The ancient Greek games were revived in 1896, in Athens. Preparation this time has been marred by construction delays and security fears, and Phelps is being sold as a breath of clean air in a city notorious for its pollution.

"With the heat and everything going on in the world," Bowman said, "the stress level will be higher there."

Spitz is the only male swimmer ever to win more than two individual events in one Olympics. Phelps will be favored in the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys and the 200 butterfly.

He also won the 200 freestyle here, but Australian Ian Thorpe, his most high-profile opponent, looms large. Peirsol and Crocker are obstacles, as are some American teammates who have complained that Phelps doesn't deserve a berth in the 400 freestyle relay.

Olympic broadcaster NBC and national magazines now have the green light to run the big splashes on Phelps that they've prepared. Two reporters from a French newspaper followed him in Long Beach.

His father, Fred, a retired state police officer, flew in Saturday and will be going to Athens. His mother, Debbie, an educator in Baltimore County, will get major exposure on NBC. In Athens, she'll continue what she's done for the past year - hold her breath that nothing goes wrong with her baby.

What if his bid for Olympic history falls short?

"I listen to people on ESPN who don't understand swimming talk about him being a failure if he doesn't get the seven gold medals, and I laugh," said Baltimore native Tommy Hannan, who finished fifth in one of Phelps' races. "To just stand up and do this is unreal."

Michael Phelps at the U.S. trials

Phelps qualified for the Athens Olympics in all six events he attempted.

1st - 400-meter individual medley

1st - 200-meter freestyle

1st - 200-meter butterfly

2nd - 200-meter backstroke

1st - 200-meter individual medley

2nd - 100-meter butterfly

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.