Lucky seat 13

Phelps' mother knows best

she sits in same spot during his streak at trials

On sons and superstitions

July 04, 2008|By RICK MAESE

OMAHA, Neb. — OMAHA, Neb.-- --Some think it's all that training and dedication, a life spent in the swimming pool and an adolescence timed with a stopwatch. Others think it's inexplicable genes, his flexibility, a long, lean body and limbs that never seem to end. And still others point to the fancy swimsuit, designed with the aid of NASA technology and capable of keeping even John Daly afloat.

I found Michael Phelps' secret, though, and you'd never even guess. They'll have to update his Wikipedia page. Print a new edition of the biography. It's time to finally give credit where credit is due.

Tonight you can see the secret, too: When Phelps competes in the 200-meter individual medley at the U.S. Olympic trials, just look up. The secret is hardly hidden; same place it was last night. And the night before that. And the night before that.

Section 121, Row 17, Seat 13 of Qwest Center.

It's the seat Debbie Phelps had on Sunday when her son set a world record in the 400 IM, the seat she had Tuesday when he won the 200 freestyle and again Wednesday when he won the 200 butterfly. And it's the seat she won't give up until Phelps has competed all of his events at this week's trials.

It's not a matter of convenience; it's superstition.

"Every time," she says, "I sit in the same seat on the first day that I sit in the last day. I have to do it that way."

I know, I know - doesn't sound too convincing, right? But that's only because I haven't presented the irrefutable evidence yet. Ahem ...

Debbie can list several instances that support her superstition, but nothing stands out quite like last year's World Championships in Melbourne, Australia.

Debbie's seat was high up in the stands, the nosebleeds. She did have a clear a view of the pool, though, and saw no reason to change. Phelps was part of a world record-setting relay team and the next day broke the record in the 200-meter freestyle.

USA Swimming had found Debbie a much better seat, closer to the pool and closer to history in the making. But she declined, and Phelps set a world record in the 200 butterfly.

Speedo, one of Phelps' chief sponsors, had a great seat for Debbie on the floor the following day. Not a chance she was changing. "I'm not being disrespectful," she told them, "but I have to stay in this seat." Phelps, of course, set another world record in the 200 IM.

OK, there might be a hole or two in the theory, but don't tell Debbie. Son does his job in the pool, and Mom does her job in the stands.

By now, you would figure she'd be an old pro at this. Debbie was at the trials in 1996 with her daughter Whitney and in 2000 and 2004 with Phelps. To watch her in the stands each night in Omaha, though, you'd think she was watching her child's first race.

"Some people tell me it must get easier. It doesn't get easier," she says. "It doesn't really change. I'm just as nervous this time as I was in 2000 and as I was in 2004.

"I haven't got to that point where I just lean back and say: `Oh, good. Go fast.' I just have to stand up," she says. "I need my space."

In fact, one of the few times Debbie says she broke from her routine was when Phelps made his debut at Olympic trials in 2000. She was stuck with a seat near the diving well and needed a better vantage point for the 200 butterfly.

Back then, Phelps was only 15 and had barely finished his freshman year at Towson High. He wasn't necessarily expected to make the Olympic team, and Debbie just wanted to watch her son on the biggest stage of his life.

She left her seat and walked closer to the pool, where an usher kept telling her to move. "I just want to watch my son," she said. "Please."

Phelps took off. After the first 100 meters, he was fifth overall. "I thought, `Oh, my God,'" Debbie says, "and I turned and watched the scoreboard for the rest of the race."

The announcer said, "Here comes Phelps," and Debbie's stomach did a pirouette. No male swimmer Phelps' age had qualified for the Olympics in 68 years. When the race was over, Debbie heard, "In first, Tom Malchow ... and in second, Michael Phelps."

"I was just in shock," she says.

Eight years later, her son swims with much loftier expectations, but Debbie says the feeling in her stomach is the same. And while Phelps and every other swimmer has a particular race-day routine, so does Debbie.

She was invited this week to watch her son from a special suite in Qwest Center. No way.

Section 121, Row 17, Seat 13. It's where a stomach races just as fast as an Olympian can swim. Not just a superstition, but maybe also a key to victory.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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