Swimming feels ripples of Phelps' dominance

December 10, 2006|By RICK MAESE

As he does just about every Sunday, Michael Phelps will wake up this morning and slip on his Ravens jersey. A replica of Ed Reed's No. 20 bookends Phelps' trim frame. Then he'll hit the streets of Ann Arbor, Mich., searching for a television that's broadcasting today's game from Kansas City.

It's a brief break in a schedule that typically has Phelps visiting every corner of the country, alternately smiling, shaking hands and selling his sport - or selling MP3 players or watches or Speedos. "I love what the Ravens are doing this year," he says. "I try to watch them every chance I get, even if it's just watching on the Internet."

Last week, Sports Illustrated named its Sportsman of the Year (Dwyane Wade), and if Maryland had an equivalent honor, for the third year running, Phelps would warrant plenty of consideration. (Let's throw Kimmie Meissner and the Maryland women's basketball team on that list, too.)

"This has been my best year other than Athens [2004]," Phelps, 21, said last week, a morning after competing in a celebrity poker tournament in Omaha, Neb. "I was able to get back to some of my personal best times and able to break a world record again. There's a lot of excitement again."

After a 2005 season in which many felt Phelps was putting too much energy into marketing and not enough into swimming, he responded with a 2006 that'd scare a goldfish out of his bowl. Sure, he set three world records - his first since the 2004 Games - and blew away the competition in just about every pool he entered. But he's also profoundly changing his sport, a claim that even the best athletes in other arenas wouldn't dare make.

To get an idea of just how Phelps has affected swimming recently, you only need to consider that he's somehow at the heart of the year's biggest swimming headlines.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Australia's Ian Thorpe announced his retirement, leaving Phelps as the last superstar left in the pool. Thorpe, 24, said he lacked the motivation to keep competing - and it's easy to see why. If you know you're about to be left in someone else's wake, you hang up your goggles.

At the Athens Games, where Phelps won six gold medals, Thorpe won the 200-meter freestyle, defeating Phelps and Dutch swimmer Pieter van den Hoogenband in what many called "the race of the century."

"I was kind of bummed when I heard he was retiring," Phelps said. "I wanted to race the guy again. But everyone has their own things that they don't feel like doing, and it's definitely disappointing that someone of his talent is leaving."

Before Thorpe began shopping for the perfect retirement home, he joined most of the international swimming community in tacitly blaming Phelps for changes in the 2008 Olympic schedule. NBC officials, who've paid billions for Olympic broadcasting rights, want Phelps in prime time. The network flexed its muscle and had the swimming finals moved to the morning in Beijing so they can be broadcast live in the United States in the evening.

Thorpe and several other swimmers sent a letter to the International Olympic Committee. "We, the Olympic swimmers, concerned about the commercial influence to our sport, aiming at fair competition and great competition results, want to swim finals at night in Beijing," the letter stated.

There is a 12-hour time difference between Beijing and the East Coast, which means America can watch one of its favorite Olympians but many Europeans will have to stay up well past midnight to watch the finals and Chinese fans will have to miss work.

Though the Phelps factor certainly speaks to the swimmer's influence, others see it as part of a bigger problem, something that has compromised the ideals of the Olympic movement.

"I think it's an indication of the times we live in," South Africa's Roland Schoeman told the Los Angeles Times. "Whereas the Olympics were founded on the ideals of fair play and fair sport, and amateurism, and now where a television station can purchase when they want the Olympic Games finals to be held, it's just really ridiculous to me."

Phelps shrugs off any animosity. He didn't make the request and he certainly didn't invent commercialism. The way he sees it, swimmers from every country need only set the alarm on their Omega watches (available in stores everywhere!), munch a PowerBar or two (try the new caramel cookie flavor!) and hit the pool.

"NBC did that. That's a decision that they made," he said. "It's the Olympic Games. If you can't get up and swim for the Olympics, then don't swim. If your goal is to go to the Olympics and this is the only way you can go - to swim in the morning - then you make the change. ... I'm not going to let something like that lower my excitement level a bit."

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