Phelps using seven golds to test mettle

Swimming

July 17, 2004|By JOHN EISENBERG

MARK SPITZ'S historic feat of winning seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics has helped many people in the run-up to the Athens Games.

Swimming has received far more attention than normal with Michael Phelps aspiring to match Spitz's record.

Phelps' endorsement partner, Speedo, has also received a lot of attention for offering Phelps $1 million if he equals Spitz.

But Phelps himself has benefited the most.

That became clear as Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach, spoke at the end of the U.S. Olympic trials earlier this week.

"You need to aim big. Average sorts of goals give you average performances," Bowman said.

Suddenly, it all made sense.

Those managing Phelps (coaches, parents, agents) have used Spitz's record to motivate the brilliant young swimmer from Rodgers Forge.

They have quietly encouraged comparisons to Spitz and blessed the Speedo deal, which some criticized for putting too much pressure on Phelps.

"You don't accomplish anything great without some great aspirations," Bowman said.

The possibility that anything less than seven golds might be deemed a disappointment? Those who know Phelps understand that he is mature, implacable and won't succumb to such mind games.

It was more important, they felt, to dangle an exciting goal in front of a teenage boy to keep him driving hard through years of repetitive practices.

That the tactic worked was apparent at the trials, where Phelps was magnificent, winning four events and qualifying for Athens in two others.

It appears he will compete in five individual events and three relays in Athens, swimming a dizzy array of strokes and distances against a Murderer's Row of world-class opponents.

Given the caliber of his performance at the trials, he will probably win multiple golds and come home with enough medals around his neck to wrench it.

But there's one problem. He might not equal Spitz.

With the United States favored in only one relay and Phelps chasing world-record holders Ian Crocker and Ian Thorpe in two events, he's going to need upsets to reach Spitz.

So the number seven, Phelps' motivational ally over the past few years, has become an annoyance.

Because even if he doesn't win seven, Phelps is about to put on a performance for the ages, one of the greatest in Olympic history in any sport, and it's wrong to affix any negativity to it.

No male swimmer has ever competed in more than four individual events in one Olympics. Phelps will enter five.

No swimmer has won eight medals in one Olympics. Phelps could easily do it.

No American swimmer other than Spitz has won more than two individual events in one Olympics. Phelps will be favored in three.

Spitz swam 13 times in Munich, counting heats and finals. Phelps could reach close to 20 swims. And remember, Phelps, 19, is three years younger than Spitz was in 1972.

"Our sport has never seen anything like this, someone so good when they're still so young," said NBC swimming analyst Rowdy Gaines, a 1984 gold medalist. "No one has come close to what Michael is doing in terms of swimming so many events so well at such an age.

"There aren't many athletes of whom you can say, `There's never been anyone like him.' But there's never been anyone like Michael Phelps."

Scoffers and complainers surely will surface if Phelps comes home with, say, five golds and three silvers, or (horrors!) four and four.

Ha, guy thought he could win seven.

Phelps and his crew can't complain because they invited the comparison, literally signed on for it with the Speedo deal.

But let's hope common sense prevails and everyone realizes Phelps doesn't deserve that.

The comparison to Spitz was beneficial to Phelps and his sport leading up to the Games, but the story has changed.

Phelps turned the trials into a personal marathon the likes of which no one had ever seen, jumping in and out of the pool for so many heats and finals that only his coaches could keep track of what he was doing.

Now, he will tackle the same challenge in Athens, against even tougher competition.

Whatever success he enjoys, and he will enjoy a lot, should be cheered, not derided in any way.

"The way those of us in swimming look at it, if he wins four golds, a couple of silvers and a bronze, we're going to be just as proud as if he wins seven or eight golds," Gaines said. "Because we know how difficult it is, what he is doing. And it is unbelievably difficult."

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