Classy Exit, Gold Future

After 8 medals, Phelps relaxes, ponders glittering possibilities

Athens Olympics 2004

Prime-time coverage, TV: Ch. 11, 7 p.m. to midnight

August 22, 2004|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

ATHENS - There's an English bulldog puppy waiting for Michael Phelps and a week at a Wyoming time share.

Whether simple or elaborate, Phelps denied himself pleasure in many aspects of his life as he built the strength and mental resolve that resulted in Olympic history.

But now it's time to absorb his accomplishment, promote his corporate backers, see some ancient marvels and take a bow a week from today. How can the second half of the Athens Olympics produce a more worthy candidate to carry the American flag in the closing ceremony?

Here's what he doesn't have to do: be in the pool each morning swimming laps.

"He can take the month off," said Bob Bowman, the coach who shaped a gangly boy from the North Baltimore Aquatic Club into the most versatile swimmer ever.

Having given up his spot in last night's climax to the swim program, an act of sportsmanship that stunned the Olympic community, Phelps cheered from the front row.

When grateful replacement Ian Crocker helped the United States set a world record in the 400-meter medley relay, Phelps' role in Friday's preliminary earned him a sixth gold medal.

He didn't equal the record seven golds won by Mark Spitz in 1972, but add in a pair of bronzes, and Phelps finished with eight medals in Athens.

"I did something no one's ever done in the sport of swimming," Phelps said. "I wanted to be the first Michael Phelps and do something no one else ever did."

Since the Olympics were revived here in 1896, nearly 120,000 athletes have competed in the Summer Games. Only one other, Russian gymnast Alexander Dityatin, won eight in a single Games, but he had half of Phelps' gold total, and his feat came during an American boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

"If Michael doesn't get Sportsman of the Year from Sports Illustrated, he never will," said Rowdy Gaines, NBC's swim analyst. "No offense to Lance Armstrong, but come on."

Armstrong has taken over cycling's Tour de France. The Athens Olympics were a tour de force for Phelps, who went about the world's biggest athletic event as if it were just another meet in a series of achievements.

One shy of Spitz's seven golds, Phelps one-upped him on two fronts, as he became the first male swimmer to medal in five individual events and the first to win over three distances, 100, 200 and 400 meters.

Spitz raced 11 times over nine days in Munich. Phelps raced 17 times over seven days, against a broiling morning sun, hot August nights and deeper international competition.

"The most impressive thing is that he beats fresh guys in every race," said Janet Evans, who set swimming's oldest standing world record in 1989. "He kept coming back every night, plugging away. People forget, he's only 19. In Beijing, he's going to be better."

China will be host to what it hopes will be an efficient Olympics in 2008. The Olympic Aquatic Centre in Athens was supposed to have a canopy that cooled the water and competitors. It was shelved because organizers ran out of time to build it, but Phelps never lost his cool.

"This Olympics is more exhausting than any I've done, just because of Phelps," said NBC's Gaines. "I feel like I swam all of those races with him."

`They went crazy'

Family and friends felt the same.

Debbie Phelps told her son's story because he didn't have the time. She'll take a few extra days off from her job as a Baltimore County schools administrator and accompany her son from promotional appearances to the Parthenon.

Whitney Phelps fell short in her dream of making the 1996 U.S. Olympic team, a setback that was a turning point in her brother's development.

"It still isn't easy to watch swimming," Whitney Phelps said, "but I'm here to support Michael."

Fred Phelps, his father, found a lucky charm in a Japanese couple, rubbing their elbows before several races.

"They went crazy when Michael was in the water," he said.

Even one of Maryland's senators was there to cheer him on. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and his wife, Christine, toured his ancestral home in the Peloponnese before watching Phelps.

"My son John is a member of Meadowbrook," Sarbanes said of the Mount Washington pool that was a second home to Phelps. "He's told me about Michael for years, but you've got to see him to believe him."

Sarbanes spoke Thursday, in a lull between Phelps' victory in the 200 individual medley and a semifinal of the 100 butterfly.

When Phelps beat Crocker the next night in the butterfly final, the American fans gave a standing ovation, but few foreign athletes bothered to clap. Perhaps they've become bored by him, but one former skeptic acknowledged Phelps' greatness.

Fourteen months ago, Australian coach Don Talbot said Phelps hadn't proved himself over time. After Phelps starred at the world championships last year, Talbot said to see how he does at the Olympics.


"He didn't get his eight gold medals or seven, but he's Superman, no doubt about that," Talbot said. "The only one I ever saw like him was Spitz. Since that time, there hasn't been anybody as good."

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