Great expectations

July 15, 2004

SEVEN DAYS, 17 races, six different events, four first-place finishes, two second places and one world record -- all under the hot glare of the American sports media machine now offering Michael Phelps as this year's poster boy. That was the Towson 19-year-old's week at the U.S. Olympic swimming trial, an absolutely incredible performance that he now is seeking to surpass at next month's Athens games.

Mr. Phelps is blessed with stunning stature (He's 6 feet 4 inches tall, with size 14 feet and a 6-foot-7-inch wingspan). He's had the advantages of a family steeped in competitive swimming and of a relentless coach, Bob Bowman of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, who eight years ago had a precise vision of the young swimmer's world-beating potential.

And by most accounts, Mr. Phelps has managed to wrap his intense focus and a fierce desire never to lose in composed equanimity -- even as the hype and stakes inevitably have built up around his superlative talent.

But of course, the teenager's phenomenal development as an athlete also has everything to do with his already legendary work ethic -- with the discipline to train almost every day for almost a decade, hard workouts that some days total five hours and cover 10 miles in his home pool, Baltimore's Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center. His success reminds us of the answer to the old line: "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" Practice, practice, practice.

"He is a once-in-a-lifetime coming-together of talent, coaching, motivation, work effort and growth," says John Cadigan. Meadowbrook's manager who recalls Mr. Phelps as a 7-year-old who was at first skittish about putting his face in the water at a clinic at Loyola High. That changed quickly. Mr. Phelps' Central Maryland Swim League records as an 8-year-old still stand. His first Olympics was at 15, four years ahead of Mr. Bowman's vision, the youngest U.S. competitor since 1932. At last year's world championships in Barcelona, he broke five world records, two on the same day, and won four gold medals.

And yesterday, Mr. Phelps announced he may be going for eight gold medals in Athens -- five individual events and three relays; in all, one more than was won in 1972 by Mark Spitz, America's last swimming icon. In swimming parlance, Mr. Phelps vows to be tapered and shaved for Athens. He's chosen the path of great expectations. His remarkable talent -- and preparation -- have earned it.

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