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ATHENS '04 / ONE YEAR TO THE OLYMPIC GAMES

Big Splash

Eighteen-year-old Michael Phelps seems as good a bet as any to become the latest darling of the Games

August 13, 2003|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

Swimming used to be solely about the guy with the really big feet, Ian Thorpe, the Australian with the size 17 fins. Now the pre-Olympic focus has shifted to the kid with the wingspan of a small plane, 18-year-old Michael Phelps of Baltimore.

Eight days in Barcelona, Spain, changed everything.

With the Summer Olympics starting a year from today in Greece, Phelps has moved to the forefront, apparently destined to be the face of Athens, just as track star Marion Jones was the visage of Sydney in 2000, dominating the glossy magazine covers and appearing in TV ads in the run-up to the Games.

At the World Championships last month in Barcelona, Phelps set five world records -- two in less than an hour -- and won three gold medals and two silvers. He dominated Thorpe in their only individual meeting, beating him by more than 3 1/2 seconds in the 200-meter individual medley.

In his final magic act this summer, he lowered his own world record in the 200 medley, going 1 minute 55.94 seconds, at the summer nationals last week in College Park, Md. It is the fourth time in six weeks he has lowered the mark. Until Phelps started in on it, the world record of 1:58.16 had stood for nearly nine years, set by Jani Sievinen of Finland in September 1994.

The effect of his accomplishments was sinking in by the time he finished swimming in Spain. Phelps, quizzed on everything from his pre-race music (Eminem) to his possible reward for the championships (a dog), didn't use a lot of words when asked whether he had any idea of what was ahead for him.

"I think I have some idea," he said, smiling as he looked out at the large gathering of reporters.

Bob Bowman, his longtime coach, recalled for those reporters a conversation he'd had years ago with the youngster's mother, Debbie.

"I told her things were going to change, and they'd never be the same.... I've been thinking 2004 a lot since then," he said.

"She said, 'Oh, no, not Michael. He's too young.' I said, 'How are we going to stop it? What can we do to stop it? When he's ready to go, we've got to let him go.' I saw his ability to handle just about anything -- pressure, performance, anxiety."

In a sense, Phelps will be competing against two legends, one in the pool, Thorpe, and one out of the pool, Mark Spitz, winner of seven gold medals in the 1972 Olympics. Spitz has long been the only swimmer who matters to Americans with only casual interest.

Spitz, who set a world record in each of his victories at Munich, has fielded questions whenever another swimmer appears to have a shot, even a long one, at the seven golds.

"I hope I'm alive when it happens," he said Tuesday.

Since Barcelona, he has been asked to compare Thorpe and Phelps, frequently by Australian reporters.

"If you look at a snapshot of Barcelona, [Phelps] was the high-point guy," Spitz said. "He was the guy that got more world records. If you're counting quality of athleticism by that standard, yeah, he was better than Ian Thorpe.

"At the end of the day, the guy that's got the tag of winning more medals ... would have to be Ian Thorpe, as long as he can stay healthy."

For Spitz, there is one logical question to ask Phelps: "Are you swimming in everything you can win or are you swimming in everything you can qualify to swim in?

"The irony is even more evident today than it was in the World Championships. [Phelps] goes to the nationals and starts winning these other events in American records, still seconds behind the world record."

Spitz advocated concentrating on the winnable races, dismissing the extra events, and to that end, seemed to doubt that there would be a Thorpe-Phelps rematch in the 200 medley at Athens.

"Why don't you ask Ian Thorpe if he's gonna swim the 200 IM?" Spitz said. "He's the second-fastest in the world, and he's three seconds behind Michael Phelps. If Michael has a bad, bad, bad day, he's still going to win, unless he can't make it to the starting line."

Phelps is still figuring out his program, as is Thorpe. And, naturally, a lot can happen before the 2004 Olympics. Phelps realizes that, perhaps better than anyone else, since he seemingly emerged out of nowhere to make the 2000 team in Sydney at 15, the youngest male Olympian since 1932.

"You never know what could happen in the next year," he said. "I didn't think I was going to make the 2000 Olympic team. It was a goal of mine, and I worked hard at that. There could be a 14- or 15-year-old boy, or girl, who has the same dream. They could have that same thing happen next year. It's a wide-open year."

Thorpe versus Phelps could provide high drama, but there could be other athletes in other sports getting into the act as well. One year away from Athens, here are snapshots of six other athletes to watch, other than Marion Jones, of course, who is expected to at least duplicate her three gold-medal performance from Sydney:

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