A Giant Step

Phelps at new heights with 200 free record

Swimming

March 28, 2007|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,Sun Reporter

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA — MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA-- --The question, in all honesty, needs both distance and time to accurately be answered. But after Michael Phelps' jaw-dropping world-record swim yesterday in the final of the 200-meter freestyle, it's worth asking once again.

Has the Maryland native surpassed Ian Thorpe as the greatest swimmer of all time?

"I think in Australia, that debate will probably go on forever," said Mark Schubert, the head coach of Team USA. "I think it's a little unfair [to Thorpe] to say that [Phelps has passed him], because every time they stood up against each other, Thorpe won. But now the crown has been passed."

Still, the fact that the question can even be posed, in the middle of a meet no less, is a reflection of just how impressive Phelps' 200-meter freestyle time of 1:43.86 was. Even Phelps' teammates and his competitors, by now used to seeing him shave seconds off marks previously thought to be unbreakable, seemed in awe.

"To me, that was probably the single most incredible record in the books and, yeah, he put it to rest," said American Aaron Peirsol, who broke his own world record in the 100-meter backstroke, becoming the first man to go under 53 seconds with a time of 52.98.

"I thought this 200 freestyle record by Ian would last for 10, maybe 20 years," said Pieter Van Den Hoogenband of The Netherlands, who finished second to Phelps. "You can only say, `Congratulations. Fantastic race.' Second place was the best I could give."

Van Den Hoogenband and Phelps spoke briefly before the medal ceremony, and Van Den Hoogenband -- who won silver in the 200 freestyle at the 2004 Athens Olympics, and is the current world record holder in the 100 freestyle -- admitted Phelps made it impossible for him to swim his own race.

What was your best time prior to this? Van Den Hoogenband wanted to know.

Um, well, 1:45.1, Phelps answered sheepishly.

"We were joking around about it," Phelps said. "I was excited to be swimming next to him. I knew he was going to be out fast because that's how he swims his races, so I decided I just wanted to get out there with him."

Phelps' only regret about last night was that Thorpe wasn't in the lane next to him. For several years now, his desire for a rematch against Thorpe, who won the 200 freestyle in Athens, helped Phelps drag himself out of bed in the morning for training. But Thorpe, burned out and run down by injuries, elected to retire in November of 2006.

"Before Ian retired, I really wanted to come to his country and race him again," Phelps said. "That was definitely something that was in my mind when I'd get out of bed in the morning. When he retired, there was a little bit of disappointment, but I wasn't going to give up that race and say, `Oh well.' "

Phelps, who is trying to win eight gold medals in these world championships, now has gold in the two events he failed to win in Athens: the 200 freestyle and the 400-meter relay. His biggest remaining challenge will be the 100-meter butterfly Saturday, in which he will be a slight underdog to U.S. teammate Ian Crocker.

Yesterday's 200 freestyle was the 19th time Phelps has been involved in breaking a world record at an Olympic distance, and the 17th time he has held an individual world record. Only Mark Spitz of the United States and Kornelia Ender of Germany have broken more world records.

Phelps holds five world records -- in the 200-meter freestyle, 200-meter individual medley, 400-meter individual medley, 200-meter butterfly and as part of the U.S. team that broke the 400-meter freestyle relay world record.

But his performance in the 200 free may go down as his most impressive accomplishment. At least for now.

"That was one of the best records ever set, maybe the best," said Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman.

Did Phelps realize what was happening during the race?

"I had no idea," he said. "I saw where I was compared to the rest of the field. ... Coming off the last wall, I just wanted to nail it, and I saw where Pieter was, but I had no idea [about a record]. I didn't see any fans cheering or anything. I was just trying to race as hard as I could. I had to take my goggles off to really see what it was, but when I saw it, I think the reaction speaks for itself."

When he touched the wall, Phelps raised both arms in the air, his long index fingers extended toward the sky. He opened his mouth and let out a yell of satisfaction.

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

PHELPS' WORLD RECORDS

Michael Phelps holds world records in the following individual events:

200-meter freestyle (1:43.86)

200-meter butterfly (1:53.71)

200-meter individual medley (1:55.86)

400-meter individual medley (3:13.46)

Source: International Swimming Federation

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