Phelps' ambition at worlds: 8 golds in 8 days

Thorpe's retirement raises U.S. standout's chance of pulling it off

Swimming

March 24, 2007|By Lisa Dillman | Lisa Dillman,Los Angeles Times

MELBOURNE, Australia -- His road, or better yet, his swimming lane to Beijing winds through, of all things, a famous tennis facility, Rod Laver Arena.

Who knows? Maybe after Michael Phelps removes his goggles for the last time, tennis players will be competing at Michael Phelps Arena. But that's getting well ahead of things considering there are possibly two more Olympics and several World Swimming Championships in his future.

For now, Melbourne and a temporary pool in Rod Laver Arena are close to final exams for Phelps, who is aiming for eight gold medals in this eight-day meet. The world championships, which start tomorrow, are the barometer for what could happen at the Summer Olympics next year, similar to how Barcelona and the world championships in 2003 set the tone for Phelps' ambitious program in Athens in 2004.

He won eight medals in Athens, six of them gold, and his mind expanded to take in the new avenues of opportunity.

"That really made the difference for me," Phelps said. "That was sort of an eye opener. Being able to go through and try eight events at the Olympics, to be able to do that, it made me think about more possibilities.

"I never thought that I would try eight events. It really made me use my imagination more - and not close things down that I think are possible. I think I've definitely matured physically and mentally."

Phelps was talking with a reporter in January during a Grand Prix meet in Long Beach, and as often is his way, multi-tasked up on the bleachers, changing to get ready for a post-race dinner with Club Wolverine teammates and talking about the maturing process.

He said that weightlifting has helped him put on about 10 pounds and that he feels more "relaxed and laid-back" than in the past. It went beyond simply being in Southern California for a few days after a long training camp in Mexico.

"I know whatever happens, happens," Phelps said. "After a race, there's nothing I can do. I can get up and race my heart out and whatever I do in the water, happens."

That sanguine attitude will serve him well during a particularly arduous program in Melbourne. He will compete in five individual events - the 200-meter freestyle, the 200 individual medley, the 100 butterfly, the 200 butterfly and the 400 individual medley - and if all goes according to plan, three relays, meaning as many as 17 races here. The final of the 400 relay is on Day 1.

For a swimming-loving nation, the retirement of Australian star Ian Thorpe lowers the temperature by a few degrees. Without Thorpe, there won't be a Great Rematch with Phelps in the 200 freestyle, which Thorpe won in Athens, nor will the 400 relay between the U.S. and Australia be nearly as compelling.

Then again, not everyone believes Thorpe is really done. Olympic swim legend Mark Spitz said a few weeks ago at a breakfast in Long Beach that he has the feeling Thorpe will return to competition.

Though not to the degree that Thorpe has, Phelps struggled with his own motivation, most notably in the year after Athens and more recently in the fall.

He said he had a helpful series of conversations with teammate Erik Vendt, who came out of retirement in April to join Phelps in Ann Arbor, Mich.

"I wasn't really excited about going to workouts," Phelps said. "I just wasn't excited about it. Erik said, `You like to compete, so obviously you still love it. Your competitive edge is still there.'"

Lisa Dillman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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