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Spitz Fired

World record-setter Phelps focuses on Olympic feat of sport's icon

August 10, 2003|From Associated Press

Michael Phelps lunges toward the side of the pool with arms that seem to go on forever, pops out of the water and turns to see what the scoreboard has to say.

Usually, it's another record.

"I want to break as many records as possible," America's swimming phenom said. "That gets me going."

Only 18, Phelps is poised to become one of the greatest stars in Olympic history. He already swam past the "Thorpedo." He has Mark Spitz in his sights.

Yes, the records of the swimmer who won seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Games could be vulnerable when this seemingly normal teenager climbs into the water at Athens a year from now.

"He's the swimmer to look up to," Phelps said. "He's been the man in swimming since '72."

Strolling to the deck each night with headphones on and Eminem in the CD player, Phelps smashed five world records at the world championships at Barcelona last month, breaking Spitz's record for a single meet. It was a performance that left pool watchers to ponder the unthinkable: Phelps has surpassed Australia's Ian Thorpe as the best swimmer in the world.

The Thorpedo won three gold medals, one silver and one bronze -- all in freestyle events. He set no records.

Phelps has never met Spitz, but he hopes that will change sometime in the next year. The teenager would love to chat with the swimming icon about honing his mind and training his body for that date with Olympic destiny.

"In swimmers' careers, there's a swim, or a particular competition, where they have a breakout performance, where they do everything according to what everybody thought or believed they could do," Spitz told The Sydney Morning Herald. "Michael had that in Barcelona."

Now, he's trying to figure out his best events for Athens.

Phelps is considered a shoe-in for three individual golds: 200-meter butterfly and the 200 and 400 individual medley relay. He won all three at the world championships, setting world records in each event (two in the 200 IM).

Phelps is also a strong contender in the 100 butterfly, where he set another world record at Barcelona. Alas, he was upset in the final by fellow American Ian Crocker.

This past week, at the summer national championships in College Park, Md., Phelps tried out some of his weaker events -- stretching the meaning of "weaker" to the breaking point.

He missed the world record by less than a second in the 200 backstroke. He also won the 100 and 200 freestyles, breaking his own American record in the longer event.

"Mentally, he has to get into his mind to see what events he'll swim," said Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach.

Bowman is going to step up the swimmer's conditioning to prepare for the Olympic trials next summer. To match Spitz, he'll have to win four individual medals and be part of three winning relays, which leaves him at the mercy of his teammates. There's a chance that Phelps will add another individual event to bolster his chances -- and possibly break Spitz's record.

"I hope I live long enough to see it happen," Spitz said, "and I hope I'm there."

Peter Daland was the American coach at Munich. He expects to witness another Spitz-like performance in Athens.

"I told one of the American coaches that he's swimming better than Spitz," Daland told The Baltimore Sun. "I think Michael is better, no question. The only thing that Michael hasn't done is do it in the Olympics. I believe in my heart that will happen."

Bowman said Phelps is right on schedule in his training, even though he tired out in some races at the national championships. He's in the midst of a grueling schedule, which included a stopover at Athens to get a look at the Olympic pool on his way home from Barcelona.

"He's got a powerful aerobic system," Bowman said. "The way he gets trained is by swimming a lot of miles in October, November and December."

A key point will come this fall when Phelps and his coach decide what events to enter at the Olympic trials at Long Beach, scheduled for July 2004 -- just a month before the games.

"I like pressure," Phelps said. "It helps get me fired up and more ready to race. I hate to fail."

Phelps was upset by Tom Malchow in the 200 butterfly at the 2002 Pan Pacifics, which provided the incentive for his stunning performance in Spain.

The loss to Crocker will likely stick in his side all the way to Athens. The next day, a Spanish newspaper ran the headline, "Phelps is Human." Bowman clipped the story.

"Whenever he gets a little high on himself, I'll put that in his mailbox," the coach said.

Three years ago at Sydney, Phelps gave a glimpse of his potential as a 15-year-old -- the youngest member of the American men's Olympic swim team since 1932. He finished fifth in the 200-meter butterfly and didn't seem overwhelmed by the experience.

Maybe it had something do with the flight into Sydney. In those pre-Sept. 11 days, the coaches were able to arrange for Phelps and two other young swimmers, Aaron Peirsol and Megan Quann, to sit in the cockpit as their jet approached the awe-inspiring city.

Phelps was still in high school at the time. These days, the Baltimore native is a freshman-to-be, having been accepted at Loyola College in his hometown. School may have to wait a year -- he doesn't want classes to interfere with his training for Athens.

Bowman describes Phelps as a "completely average teenager" -- just one who is 6-feet-4 with size-14 feet and already earning thousands of dollars through endorsements.

Phelps picked up some bonus money for breaking all those records in Barcelona. His wish list?

"I really want a dog. I want surround-sound for my TV. I want a TV in my car. It just depends on what my mom really approves on. She has the final say on what I get to buy."

Bowman knows there will be increasing scrutiny as the Athens games approach, but he doesn't expect it to have any impact on Phelps. If anything, he'll probably work harder.

"He's been the center of attention for a while," Bowman said. "I don't think it has affected him."

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