Phelps' theme at worlds: different strokes

He'll challenge self, team in non-traditional events


July 20, 2005|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

GREENBELT - Michael Phelps feels as if he is just getting his feet wet.

Swimming's world championships, beginning in Montreal on Sunday, are just the start of the path he hopes will lead to success at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

"I wouldn't be surprised if there are one, two or three world records broken [in Montreal]," Phelps said yesterday after a workout at the University of Maryland natatorium in College Park. "I would expect to see very fast times."

Asked if he will be among those setting records, Phelps grinned. "You can only hope," he said. "But this is the lowest steppingstone, the first baby step on the way to Beijing, as we work our way up."

It is also the beginning of a different kind of competition for Phelps. Last year, the 20-year-old from Rodgers Forge won eight medals at the Athens Olympics to be the most decorated swimmer ever in a non-boycott year, and in 2003 he set five world records at the world championships.

But instead of coming to Montreal with a slate of races in his best events - the individual medley and the butterfly - designed to win gold in everything, Phelps and coach Bob Bowman, both formerly of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, have put together something else. They have assembled a race card that U.S. men's coach Dave Salo said will challenge not only Phelps, but his teammates as well.

The U.S. women's team also will be challenged, not so much by one of its own - though Abingdon's Katie Hoff, 16, could again steal the show as she did last spring in Indianapolis during the world trials - but by its youth. Eleven of the 21 female swimmers were not in Athens.

"Katie is great to watch and exciting for U.S.A. swimming," said women's coach Jack Bauerle. "She's very unaffected by the attention she's getting. Very grounded. She's the way an athlete should be. She's a very tough competitor."

Hoff said part of that toughness was honed at the Olympics, where she was a medal favorite in the 400-meter IM but didn't advance to the final after being hit by a case of nerves.

"I feel pretty confident," said Hoff, who will swim the 200 freestyle, 200 IM, 400 IM and 800 freestyle relay. "After the pressure at the Olympics, where everything that could happen happened, I've experienced the worst. I can handle anything now."

It is the same feeling Phelps carries into his plan to swim eight events: 100, 200 and 400 freestyle, 200 IM, 100 butterfly and three relays. Phelps, who is normally expected to get a medal in everything he swims, will not be a favorite in the 100 and 400 freestyle events, but is still a potential winner.

The diversity is part of Bowman's plans to strengthen Phelps' overall performance and freshen his mind before returning to his signature events as training progresses toward 2008.

It is also part of Phelps' overall goal to broaden the interest in and appeal of the sport by doing things swimmers haven't done before.

An unexpected benefit from all this plotting is the possible strengthening impact it will have on the overall performance of the U.S. men's team.

"What Michael does is challenge the guys on our team who think they have certain events locked up," Salo said. "I think the rest of the world is catching up to Michael in his strongest events - which is natural. But now, our own American swimmers have to catch up, too.

"None of our athletes can look at an event as a lock. Take Aaron Peirsol, who is so strong in the backstroke. Michael swimming [in the event] gives him cause to practice a little more. There are no sacred cows. Michael will drive the performances of everyone."

In the long run, the move to non-traditional events for Phelps is expected to drive him to even more greatness by testing his limits and boundaries.

"He's at a great place in his career where all the options are open," Bowman said. "His greatest strength is that he can do anything and his greatest weakness is we [could] try to do everything."

Phelps, a continually good-natured sort, smiles at the expectations.

"I hope it's true that the next eight years are going to be better than the last eight," he said. "The sky is the limit."

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