His head's way above water

Phelps aims for domination, but falls shy after mate's flub

April 01, 2007|By Kevin Van Valkenburg and Jennifer McMenamin | Kevin Van Valkenburg and Jennifer McMenamin,Sun Reporters

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA -- Gracious athletes, even the great ones, always say that world records are meant to be broken.

But it is simply hard to fathom that anyone foresaw a day when someone like Michael Phelps would come along and break them the way he is doing it now: night after night after night.

Phelps, with his performance this week at the FINA World Championships, has ascended into a stratosphere previously unimagined in the swimming world. Gold medals, like the six he won at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, are no longer the standard.

Instead, in some respects, it is about destroying conventional wisdom about what we thought the human body could achieve. And about solidifying his position as one of the greatest athletes of all time, not just in swimming.

"There is nobody else. Michael, right now, stands by himself," said Jon Urbanchek, an assistant coach for the United States. "He's more like Michael Jordan. He's way out there."

In the first six days of the world championships, Phelps has won six gold medals and set four world records.

This morning, he'll swim the 400-meter individual medley, an event in which he holds the world record. He was scheduled to swim the butterfly for the United States in the finals of the 400-meter medley relay, but the U.S. was disqualified in the preliminaries when Ian Crocker, who was swimming in Phelps' place, left the starting blocks early. That mistake cost Phelps a chance to win eight gold medals.

American Mark Spitz set the record with seven gold medals at the 1972 Summer Olympics.

Phelps has electrified the crowd in Rod Laver Arena - most of whom paid nearly $200 for a ticket each night - and earned banner headlines each day.

Announcers refer to him as Superman, and each time he dives into the pool, they declare with gusto that "World records are under siege!"

He has captivated Australians who revere the sport and those who, before the championship, were reluctant to concede that Phelps had surpassed their champion, Ian Thorpe, as the greatest of all time.

"I love Ian Thorpe. I do," said 20-year-old Amy Wakely of Melbourne, who scored a last-minute ticket to see Phelps on Friday, when he helped the Americans break the 4 x 200 freestyle relay world record. "But Michael is just an all-around better swimmer. He's just amazing. It's not, `What is Michael Phelps swimming in?' It's, `What is Michael Phelps not swimming in?' He could do the 200-meter relay, like, by himself. He's winning everything."

In a way, the 21-year-old Phelps' accomplishments may be more appreciated and more revered around the world than they are in the United States, where the sporting world is focused this week on the NCAA Final Four, and anticipating golf's first major, The Masters.

In Australia, the world championships are broadcast live every night. Aussie swimmers like Thorpe are regulars in the Australian gossip magazines the way American celebrities are splashed across the pages of US Weekly and People.

Paparazzi photos of retired long-distance swimmer Kieren Perkins and his wife also routinely make the pages of the gossip magazines, Aussies say. With so much of the Australian population living near the coasts, Aussie children learn to swim early. Growing up, they join swim clubs the way American children play Little League baseball and European youngsters play soccer.

"It's very important for Australians to win in swimming because it's one of the few things we're good at," said Elizabeth Taylor, 27, of Melbourne. "Anything having to do with swimming is big news here."

Randy Walker, 42, an Atlanta native, has lived for the last decade in Singapore, where he works for IBM. He was in town for business and decided to stay longer, just to see Phelps swim.

"This is history. How often do you get to sit on the sidelines of history?" Walker said. "He's having a meet no one else has had. ... The question now will be whether he'll be known as one of the greatest athletes in all sports - among the Tigers [Woods] and the [Roger] Federers. He's moving toward that stature. And to have a swimmer in the U.S. talked about in the same breath as those athletes, it really says something."

Walker said it is a shame that the time difference between Australia and the United States prevents Americans from watching the world championships on television. "I think [Phelps] is bigger here than he is in the States just because everyone here is seeing it," he said.

Even in Japan, where the world championships are broadcast on a two-hour tape delay, Phelps has achieved rock-star status. "People in Japan call him `The Monster,'" said Kyoko Yamagish, a producer for Japanese television. "Ian Thorpe was huge, but Phelps has surpassed him. We show all his races."

It's impossible not to ask whether Phelps might be peaking too early. As important as the world championships are, the Beijing Olympics are far more important in the eyes of swimmers and the world.

But Phelps' coach Bob Bowman does not see it like that.

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