Phelps gets taste of gold

Athens Olympics

August 15, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

ATHENS - One gold medal down, six to go. Or maybe it's seven, which would mean an unthinkable attempt for eight gold medals.

We all know what that means: Michael Phelps as immortal as a Greek god. Maybe Zeus. Certainly Poseidon.

Conventional wisdom says it's impossible, right?

Well, until proved otherwise ...

Yesterday, notching Olympic medal No. 1 with nothing less than a world record in the 400-meter individual medley, Phelps lifted the first gold medal for any American at these Summer Games to his bright, white teeth and bit it.

Bet the cameras liked that.

Hi, NBC. Hello, world. You have just witnessed my personal opening ceremony. Hope you liked it.

At least it was swift confirmation of everything that has been plotted and planned. Phelps recorded gold No. 1 in 4:08.26 - faster than anyone else ever, including a man named Mark Spitz, who in 1972 won more Olympic gold medals in Munich than the Olympic logo has rings.

How many races will he race?

Seven or eight. Enough to give him the chance.

"I just know that when Michael swims an event, he swims to win," coach Bob Bowman said yesterday.

That the result of the 2004 Olympics race No. 1 was about what we expected from Phelps - total domination without battery-zapping exertion - doesn't diminish the fact of his feat.

He got his first gold.

If Phelps said he wanted only to win that first one, it's only because it's the one that allows the floodgate to open behind it.

See, Phelps' podium hi-jinks - tasting gold, literally - wasn't as much a playful gesture as it was a test.

Hmmm. Like the taste of this precious metal. May I have some more?

One down, six to go. Maybe seven, which means he could wind up with eight gold medals. Who knows?

Phelps probably knows. The game plan for this work week has been firmly in place for two years.

That's long enough for Speedo, Visa, cell phone companies, the U.S. Olympic Committee and the folks back home at the Meadowbrook Swim Club to pin their hopes on Phelps.

He knows what he's going after here in Greece. It's not just one gold trinket, or the fairytale fulfillment of a boyhood dream. There is too much calculation, too much planning, too much talent, too great of an opportunity at hand to get here and proclaim bliss.

It took prodding from reporters for Phelps to express some sentimentality about his Olympic achievement.

Sure, he "jerked some tears," but the real issue for him last night was getting out of the swim venue, completing doping control, getting back to the village and under the covers to rest.

Listen to Phelps talk. It's the talk of a competitor as steely and determined as anyone at these Games. Asked yesterday whom he wanted to dedicate his first gold medal to, he didn't hesitate.

Not his mom, not his dad, not the sisters that swam before him, including the one who missed her Olympics with a bad back.

Not his coach, not his cat, not his buddies back at North Baltimore Aquatic Club.

Nope.

"I dedicate it to myself. I worked hard for this," he said - and that's an understatement.

Asked what was better, his gold medal or his teammate Erik Vendt's silver-medal performance, Phelps confessed both were great, but maybe Vendt's second-place finish from Lane 1 pumped him up even more.

Phelps wanted to kick off these Games with a 1-2 medal punch in the 400 IM, if only to create a cauldron of winning - for his teammates, for himself.

It's a winner's environment he craves and he'll help carry his teammates to that place. It's good for them. It's good for him. Everyone riding the wake.

Now it's about the work Phelps has cut out for himself today, in the 400 freestyle relay and in preliminary heats for the 200 freestyle. That race figures to be one of the biggest showdowns of these Olympics. This is the greatest test for him, considering that he's not the overwhelming favorite in it, not like he is in the 200 butterfly and the 200 IM.

Still, Phelps has analyzed and visualized and formatted his work week down to each 50-meter piece. He is hardly afraid to face the challenge.

"It's going to take a fast time to win. There's a time in my mind that I think it will take to win, but I'll keep that tucked away," he said.

He smiled, but it wasn't as 19-year-old goofy as it was Olympian calculated, strategic, psychologically sound.

In other words: Phelps told Australian star Ian Thorpe and all other comers that he's in control. These are his heats, his races, his Olympics. Dare him to make a mistake, to underestimate anyone, any scenario.

We are off and swimming with Phelps, who isn't the face of these Olympics, he's the engine.

Who will beat him? It can be done, sure. But who?

"He's a better swimmer than he was at the [U.S.] trials [in July]. He knows what's ahead of him. He's had five weeks to prepare," Bowman said yesterday.

One down, six to go, maybe seven.

It can't be done?

Probably, it can't. That doesn't mean it's impossible, especially not now, not after the first gold medal is around Phelps' neck and he's lifted it up to his mouth for a taste.

His teeth are sharp.

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