Phelps is all grown up

Swimmer's physical, emotional maturation has led to near iconic status

April 02, 2007|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,Sun reporter

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA -- There is a simple explanation for why Michael Phelps was able to break five world records and win seven gold medals this past week at the FINA World Championships. It seems obvious looking back, but it took one of the most astonishing seven-day stretches in the history of sports for the picture to come completely into focus.

Phelps has become - physically and emotionally - a man.

When he was winning medals left and right at the Olympics in Athens in 2004, it was easy to overlook that, in many ways, he was still just a precocious teenager. Phelps still lived at home in Rodgers Forge, still needed his meals cooked for him, his laundry done, and he still needed his mother to wake him in the morning and make sure he got out of bed and off to practice on time.

It's a different story now. Debbie Phelps, the principal at Windsor Mill Middle School, said yesterday that, before the world championships, she hadn't seen her son since January at a swim meet in Long Beach, Calif.

"I don't know how he's training. I don't know how he's eating. I don't know how he's sleeping," she said. "I come as a spectator. But it's very important for me to be here for him."

Like every college-age person, Phelps, 21, needed to figure out how to handle the world on his own. After moving to Ann Arbor, Mich., and buying a home after the Olympics, he learned through trial and error how to accomplish basic tasks such as washing dishes, making meals and getting to the pool on time. And when things didn't go smoothly - like the time he nearly flooded his kitchen with bubbles after putting hand soap in his dishwasher - he learned from those experiences.

"My mom has done an unbelievable job raising me into the person I am today," Phelps said. "But I've also learned so much from being out on my own. I've had to make decisions and juggle things and not rely on her."

Phelps still made it a point to make eye contact with his mother after every race this week. He always knew where she was sitting.

"As a parent, you instill values in your children," said Debbie Phelps, with tears welling in her eyes, shortly after her son set his fifth world record of the week while winning the 400-meter individual medley yesterday. "You only hope when they go off on their own that they remain embedded in their hearts. I think they are with Michael. I think everything went pretty well."

Phelps' newfound maturity, when combined with superior swimming technique, increased weight training and the hunger to dominate his sport once again, formed the perfect storm leading up to the world championships. And when he dived into the pool last week, it was clear Phelps had not only regained the form he showed in Athens, but he also had surpassed it.

"He's a lot more mature, physically, psychologically and emotionally," said Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman. "That's it. It's very simple. He's just grown, as a person and as an athlete."

In the process, Phelps managed, for a week at least, to thrust swimming into the daily sports dialogue of many Americans in a non-Olympic year, which was no small task. Phelps acknowledged being amused and surprised when he turned on ESPN in his hotel room this week and heard arguments over who was the world's best athlete: Tiger Woods, Roger Federer or himself.

"I can't tell you how many people have sent me text messages that have said people are blowing you up [in the United States]," Phelps said. "They said it's been ESPN, PTI [Pardon the Interruption], the sports stations that so many kids my age watch. It's unreal. ... It's pretty cool to grow up watching ESPN and all of the sudden it pops up and you're on there. A year ago or two years ago, that wasn't the case. It's good to see the sport of swimming grow so much over the last few years."

Phelps' agent, Peter Carlisle, said he's confident Phelps will be the most watched athlete at the Olympics in 16 months.

"I think that doing as well as he did here really changes the context in which he's going to be discussed," Carlisle said. "I think this creates a pretty legitimate conversation of `Who is the greatest athlete?' Even if it's just a debate, that's a really great thing for the sport of swimming."

And a good thing for Phelps from a marketing standpoint. Carlisle said he's confident this week's performance will translate into more companies wanting to hire Phelps to be a spokesman for their products.

"There is a reason why certain athletes have those kind of deals," Carlisle said. "They transcend sport. They're iconic. Michael has definitely put himself at that same level."

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