Focus sharpens on Phelps

Facing media in Athens, U.S. swim star won't play the expectations game

Athens Olympics

1 Day To Go

Aug. 13 - 29

August 12, 2004|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

ATHENS - On Sunday night, the American swim team lightened the mood at minicamp with a number of skits.

Michael Phelps was the target of most of the improvisations in Mallorca, Spain. The host of a mock game show, Peter Vanderkaay nailed Phelps with some of the stock answers that are his response to year-old questions about Mark Spitz, expectations, etc.

Vanderkaay, who figures to join Phelps in the 800 freestyle relay, was his roommate when the U.S. team trained at Stanford University. He'll take direction from Phelps when the Rodgers Forge resident becomes volunteer assistant coach at the University of Michigan, but the world's most versatile swimmer won't jab back about his interview style.

He's so focused and his plate is so full with the possibility of an unprecedented eight events, Phelps declined an invitation to appear on the Today show earlier this week. He is as controlled with the media as he is in a pool, which international reporters discovered yesterday during an hourlong session with Phelps and America's six other world-record holders.

At times, he sounded savvy, at others, he sounded like what he is: a kid who has never spent any time in a college classroom.

The favorite in three individual events and a serious factor in eight, Phelps has asserted that he just wants one gold medal, so he was asked about one possible outcome: If he's going to be satisfied with one gold medal, would he be disappointed with six?

"I've said all along, and I've been sticking with it, that I'd be happy with one gold medal," Phelps said. "I wouldn't be disappointed with one gold medal, that's what I'm going to say. I'm going to stick with that."

An Australian asked that if that's really the case, after Saturday's 400-meter individual medley, where he owns history's four fastest times, would Phelps mind packing up and going home?

"You guys have heard it from me enough," Phelps said. "I'm going to take it one race at a time."

Phelps stumbled over a question about the U.S. rivalry with Australia, making several tries to get out the word "more" in a futile attempt to back up the assertion of Lenny Krayzelburg, his roommate in Athens, that there are more than two good swim nations.

"I can't agree ... I can't agree ... I agree with Lenny," Phelps said with a sheepish smile.

A daunting situation did produce some good sound bites from Phelps, who let his guard down enough to show off the seldom-seen Olympic ring tattoo on his right hip in a photo essay in the current edition of Vanity Fair.

Is it a mission impossible for Mr. Phelps, to make up two seconds on Australian star Ian Thorpe in the 200 freestyle?

"I wouldn't say anything is impossible," Phelps said. "I've been able to keep my mind open. In 1980, no one said that the U.S. could beat the Russians in [ice] hockey. The training we've been doing since the trials has gone well. We've worked on my starts, and my turns are better. The opportunities are endless."

He also became animated when he talked about diving into the pool at the Olympic Aquatic Center for the first time Tuesday night.

"Walking in, you get the vibe, feel the excitement building up in your body," Phelps said.

That's his element. When yesterday's news conference ended, Phelps began to file out behind teammate and 100 butterfly rival Ian Crocker, and exhaled.

Games at a glance

When: Tomorrow-Aug. 29

Where: Athens, Greece

Sports: 28

Countries: 202

Athletes: 10,500

Events: 296

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