After glittering Games, Phelps sets sights on 2008, new gold standard

`We can make a new goal,' winner of six events says, looking forward to Beijing

Men's Swimming

Athens 2004

August 29, 2004|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

ATHENS - What am I going to do with the rest of my life?

That country music line describes the crossroads that thousands of athletes encounter at the close of an Olympics. Then there is Michael Phelps, who favors rap and is nowhere near the end of his incredible swimming career.

What is it like to be in position to become the most celebrated Olympic athlete ever and still be a teenager?

The Athens Olympics end with tonight's closing ceremony, and as the Games' second week ended yesterday, nothing had changed from Week 1, when L'Equipe, the French sports daily, called Phelps the "man of the Olympics."

That is what happens when you make history on several fronts, become only the third athlete to win six gold medals in a single Summer Olympics and appear committed to become the first to reach 10 in a lifetime.

"We can make a new goal," Phelps said last night.

Those who have seen him grow from an awkward boy into a hardened competitor impervious to stress and scrutiny have left here and returned to more mundane matters.

His coach, Bob Bowman, has assumed his new job at the University of Michigan, where Phelps will join him as an assistant coach in late October, compete for Club Wolverine and begin taking classes in January.

His mother returned to their Rodgers Forge home Thursday.

"I'm mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted," Debbie Phelps said. "Not that I haven't enjoyed every moment, but it's a whirlwind."

Her son will take stock of his accomplishments later. Phelps has shifted the energy he puts into training into a series of parties and public appearances. He returns home tomorrow, and his agenda could include a parade down York Road in the next two weeks.

Phelps was asked to pick one moment from the Olympic Aquatic Centre that stood above others. He declined. What was the highlight of last week?

"Sleeping in," Phelps said. "I haven't done that in a long time. I've been able to take a week off and try to recover from everything that we did the last four years to get ready for this moment. Sitting back, doing pretty much what I wanted to for a week, that's been awesome. I slept in until 12:30 [p.m.] Friday."

The night before, Phelps cheered the U.S. women's soccer team, which beat Brazil in overtime and took gold. His touch could not rub off on the American men's basketball team when he attended their semifinal loss to Argentina on Friday.

Phelps spoke via telephone en route to his second party thrown by Sports Illustrated, an official Olympic sponsor. At the first, NBA commissioner David Stern sought him out in the VIP lounge. The Today show on NBC, the American rights holder to the Olympics, has had its daily Phelps fix.

One of the segments included Mark Spitz, whose record seven gold medals from 1972 are safe for an additional four years. Spitz cashed in on that accomplishment by posing for a German magazine with his medals, and Phelps said his agent is negotiating a bid for an evocative shot.

There were two Speedo beach parties, the second one a joint venture with MTV, photo opportunities where a 2003 graduate of Towson High added to his burgeoning image as a teen idol. There were quieter moments, like a trip to the Parthenon.

He attended Friday's basketball game with a group that included U.S. teammates Lenny Krayzelburg and Erik Vendt.

Phelps roomed with Krayzelburg in the athletes' village until last Sunday, when he moved into a luxury cruise ship berthed in Piraeus. Vendt was the silver medalist in the 400-meter individual medley, swimming's first final, on Aug. 14. The gold went to Phelps, in the only world record set in a men's individual event.

Six days later, one of his trademark surges won the 100 butterfly. Phelps was talking about a lack of visibility when he said he wanted to change his sport, but after that race he turned one of its customs upside down.

Phelps swam in the preliminary of the 400 medley relay and had the right to go in the final after beating Ian Crocker in the 100 butterfly, but stepped aside to give his friend and rival a chance. Crocker helped the U.S. team swim to gold - a medal Phelps shared as part of the earlier relay.

In basketball, benchwarmers are treated no differently from 30-point scorers during the medal ceremony. The International Olympic Committee, however, has pressured FINA, swimming's governing body, to award medals only to relay finalists, so Phelps struck a blow for "morning" swimmers.

"It's a team effort," Phelps said. "It's not an individual swim."

But no one among the more than 10,000 athletes here approached what Phelps did. His six golds matched the total of the host country, and his eight medals were most ever in a non-boycotted Olympics.

Katie Hoff, like Phelps a swimmer for the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, struggled in her Olympic debut, but the 15-year-old should be better for the experience, and is determined to get to Beijing in 2008.

Phelps plans to be there, too. Keep telling yourself, he's only 19.

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