6th sense: will to win

Always a competitor, Phelps extends gold streak

On Michael Phelps

Beijing 2008

August 15, 2008|By RICK MAESE

BEIJING - Michael Phelps had that look in his eyes - by now, you know the one - as he stared across the table, eyeballing the competition. The game was 500 Rummy, and because there's a winner and a loser, Phelps' objective was clear: He would obliterate the foe sitting across from him at all costs. There was no way he was about to let his grandma beat him.

"Gran, I am out to win," he told her, "whether it's you or anybody else."

The opponent doesn't actually matter. Sometimes it's Grandma. Sometimes it's a best friend one lane over in the practice pool. Tomorrow it will be Ian Crocker in the 100-meter butterfly. And this morning, it happened to be Ryan Lochte in the 200-meter individual medley.

Phelps picked up his sixth gold medal and his sixth world record in the race. You could tear several pages off a wall calendar from the time Phelps completes a race and the rest of the field reaches the wall. His latest winning time - 1 minute, 54.23 seconds, breaking a record he had already set seven times before - was more than two seconds ahead of anyone else.

You can't help but feel a bit bad for Lochte, which is a weird thing to say about someone who picked up a gold and a bronze medal in a 30-minute period of swimming. He was the one who seemed to pose the biggest threat to Phelps' aim at Olympic perfection.

Lochte's quite the physical specimen and knows his way around the swimming pool. But he would have more hardware hanging from his neck if Phelps for some reason chose to vacation in Hawaii this August. Lochte lacks the hypercompetitive drive that propels Phelps through the water with such grace and force.

Phelps has a hunger for success matched only by his fear of failure. It's a throbbing life force found deep in the psyche of only the elite of elite. Tiger Woods has it. So did Michael Jordan.

For Phelps, it's ever-present. There doesn't need to be a gold medal on the line. There doesn't need to be anything on the line, in fact.

"Even something simple and dumb like driving," his sister Whitney says. "We'd be going somewhere, and I'd be driving one car and he'd be driving another. He'd just hate it - hate it - if I was in front of him.

"It could be something like walking in front of each other at the mall to competing at the Olympics. Everything he does has to have some competitive piece to it."

There are many things that distinguish Phelps from everyone else on the pool deck. Feet, joints, torso, shoulders, butt - take your pick. Not to belittle any of his physical attributes, but the biggest thing separating Phelps from his foes is that while they all want to touch the wall first, Phelps absolutely must.

Take Lochte for example. He's fully capable. Less than a half-hour before taking on Phelps in the 200 IM, Lochte set a world record in the 200-meter backstroke. But something will always separate the two.

In the preliminaries of the 200 IM, Lochte actually swam an eyelash better time than Phelps - albeit, by only 0.01 of a second. But in the finals, the race that mattered, Lochte was barely in the same pool, finishing a full 2.3 seconds behind Phelps.

In describing his habits, here's what Lochte told Yahoo Sports before the Games: "I'm not going in my back room, taking down my splits. I'm not thinking about swimming at home. That's just who I am. I don't really define myself as a swimmer. ... I bet it [ticks] off a lot of other swimmers. Because I really don't care. I care if I lose, but I won't go into a shelter and close a door for days. I lost - oh well. I'll try to make it better the next time. Win or lose, it doesn't really matter."

Is there any circumstance under which you can imagine Phelps saying something like that? He would sooner drown than make such an admission.

"Michael is Michael, and he doesn't like to lose in anything," his eldest sister, Hilary, says. "I think we all wanted to be the best that we can be. And there's a streak of perfectionism in all of us, which we probably got from my mom. We'll do whatever we can to be the best we can."

Here at these Olympics, between races and between sessions at the Water Cube, Phelps has spent his time back at the Olympic Village, doing what he does best - competing. He passes time defying death and building societies in the Age of Empire game on the computer and also playing Spades with his buddies.

Playing cards has long been a preferred form of competition. Phelps and his grandmother, Leoma Davisson, used to do it for hours. She died after the Athens Games, but Phelps has fond memories of his many visits to Brighton Gardens, an assisted-living home in Pikesville. For Phelps and his grandmother, it was never long before the deck of cards came out.

"It was so funny to watch," Phelps' mother, Debbie, says. "He'd just be so upset whenever his grandmother would win."

There, just as here, Phelps had only one thing on his mind: dominate whatever stood in front of him.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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