Unbeatable Phelps in seventh heaven

Win in 400 IM gives U.S. star seven golds

Swimming

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

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA -- Early yesterday morning, one of Michael Phelps' closest friends sent him a text message. It was a prediction. This is how fast you're going to go in the 400-meter individual medley, it read: "4.06.40."

It was a bold, almost blasphemous forecast, considering it would mean that Phelps would break his own world record by nearly two full seconds. And as it turned out, it wasn't correct.

Phelps was even faster.

The 21-year-old Rodgers Forge native swam the 400 IM in 4:06.22, finishing more than 3.5 seconds ahead of teammate Ryan Lochte. It was just another remarkable performance in a week full of them.

"I was thinking about [the text message] after the race," Phelps said. "I'll have to tell my friend his prediction was a few tenths off."

The win earned Phelps his seventh gold medal of the FINA World Championships, the most by one individual in the history of the meet, as well as his fifth world record in seven days. It's a stretch that U.S. swimming coach Mark Schubert called, without hesitation, "the greatest performance in the history of swimming."

It wasn't quite the perfect night for Phelps. Early in the day, he learned that the 400 medley relay team had been disqualified during the preliminaries when Ian Crocker left the blocks early, costing Phelps a shot at eight gold medals. But he wasn't about to complain.

"It definitely wasn't intentional," Phelps said. "When Team USA comes into a swim meet, we come as a team and we exit as a team. There are things that don't happen exactly as we want it to, but it's better to happen now than next year [at the Olympics in Beijing]."

Still, with the way he swam last week and the way he broke records, not just by fractions of a second but by considerable chunks, Phelps likely changed the debate regarding his excellence. The question isn't whether he's the greatest swimmer of all time; it's whether he's one of the greatest athletes of all time in any sport.

"This is definitely the best-case scenario for what we had in mind leading into the Beijing trials," Phelps said. "This is all I could really ask for. It was definitely a long week, but it was definitely something I'm extremely satisfied that it ended how it did."

Phelps was off world-record pace for almost the entire race, but thanks to a strong breaststroke, his most improved stroke, by the 300-meter mark, he had a full body length on Lochte.

The crowd rose to its feet as he pulled away, leaving the red line -- which shows on TV where the world record mark is -- in his wake. Lochte, who set a world record in the 200-meter backstroke earlier in the meet, said just trying to keep up with Phelps took an incredible toll on his body.

"I feel like I need a wheelchair right now," Lochte said. "My legs are shot. I knew the way he swims, if I was going to have any chance, I had to go out fast. That's what I did, but I paid the price at the very end."

When Phelps touched the wall, looked up and saw his time, he was fairly reserved in his celebration. He pumped his fist a few times, and smiled. He was, after an incredible week, exhausted.

"I've been thinking about this race pretty much the whole entire week because I knew it was going to be the hardest one," Phelps said. "I knew I was going to be the most emotionally dead, the most physically dead. I had to step out there with the biggest challenge ahead of me. I felt horrible this morning. I couldn't take a nap this afternoon. I didn't feel good in the warm-up pool. I didn't feel good right before the race. I just had to block it out and just think about what I'd done in training and try to use it in the race."

Phelps said after 300 meters, he was running on pure adrenaline and little else. And then he saw something that helped him surge home in the final stretch.

"One breath in the middle of the pool, I saw a random spectator standing and clapping," Phelps said. "That right there gave me the idea that I could be under world-record pace. I really had no idea how far I was below it, but that sort of gave me the little extra surge the last 15 meters."

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

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