Moment, not medal, is golden in Phelps' test against the best

Athens Olympics

August 17, 2004|By Laura Vecsey

ATHENS - He liked it. He loved it. Big waves hitting him in the face.

It was the wake of swimmers ahead of him in the pool, the waves of swimmers faster than him.

How often can Michael Phelps say that: swimmers faster than him?

He can say that here, at the Olympics that were supposed to be all about him, except it never works out that way. Somewhere between what was supposed to be and what is, that's where we find Michael Phelps' greatest Olympic achievement.

He didn't want to win as much as he wanted the challenge.

They have a word for that in Greek. Ateri. It's an ancient word that means, roughly, the right priorities. Oddly, his swim club and home pool back home printed T-shirts with that word printed on the back. They knew what Phelps' real quest in Athens was. It wasn't about the medals, but the experience.

Last night in the hotly anticipated 200-meter men's freestyle, the marquee race of these Summer Games, Phelps' path to the blue-tiled wall was not quiet water, as it usually is.

It was more like he was crossing the English Channel. Or traversing the Chesapeake - on a windy day.

He was a salmon, swimming against the current, incapable of making up time, of closing the gap. You just don't do that against Ian Thorpe or Pieter van den Hoogenband, who whipped up a storm and dared Phelps to navigate his way through it.

Phelps could not. So what? The pleasure was in the moment - which found Phelps fractions of a second off Thorpe and van den Hoogenband.

Yeah, baby.

Losing never felt so good.

"How can I be disappointed? I swam in a field with the two fastest freestylers of all time," Phelps said last night, smiling.

Those weren't merely Phelps' opponents in lanes 4 and 5. Those guys were role models. They're measuring sticks, film study tutors. They are the inspiration, especially Thorpe.

When Phelps was 13, his coach started making him watch Thorpe on film. This is the way to do it. This is how it's done. Only two years older, Thorpe was a beacon, a challenge. He was the other prodigy, just out of reach, just a little better.

"He has a perfect stroke. It's unbelievable how he moves through the water," Phelps said.

Phelps was the third-fastest swimmer in the world last night. It was no surprise. It was no disappointment.

That he won a bronze in the 200 freestyle is immaterial. So, too, is the fact that he did not win gold, which might sound funny, because this was to be his seven-gold-medal Olympics.

"I had an opportunity," he said about the ballyhooed quest.

Indeed, he did have an opportunity. He was the first swimmer to qualify for six individual events at an Olympics, even though he chose not to swim the 200 backstroke.

Still, he'll have eight races in these Games, with the relays and three individual races still to come. The quest made good marketing sense for monetary purposes. Why not cash in when the cash is out there for someone as attractive, talented, inspired as he is?

The quest was also excellent incentive for a 19-year-old prodigy who is hungry for any and all challenges.

But his opportunity to match Mark Spitz is done. That all but ended in the 400 freestyle relay Sunday night, when teammate Ian Crocker put the Americans in last place after the first leg, leaving Phelps, the second American off the blocks, to swim in the wake of Thorpe.

Losing the relay was disappointing. It was emotionally taxing, but the experience?

This is where Phelps proved far more of a champion than any seven-gold quest could determine. He wanted to know what it was like to swim in the Olympics against Thorpe, the picture of perfection.

Thorpe is the middle-distance king who, like Phelps, was once a prodigy and was so sure how to handle his talent and manage the training and respond to expectations that he became a role model.

Phelps was more than happy to surrender his quest for gold supremacy to experience an Olympic race against competitors who have been and still are better.

"I told Bob [Bowman, his coach], `Wow! He makes big waves,' " Phelps said last night about the relay experience - a relay in which the Americans had to settle for a bronze.

"This is the first time I've been able to race these guys in that event. It was fun. A whole lot of things happen here that don't happen other places. It's different," he said, smiling.

What he meant by different was that he was not the favorite, he was not going to get anywhere without swimming through Thorpe's white water.

"[Sunday] night, he was making big waves. I was getting hammered by the waves," Phelps said.

He was all smiles, a 19-year-old who can suddenly see, after two bronze medals in the relay and 200 freestyle to go with his 400 individual medley gold, that the emotional weight of this Olympics is off him.

Now, it's just the physical load of preliminary races, semifinals and finals. He is here for more than just the million-dollar Speedo, though it would have been nice, he said.

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