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ATHENS 2004

Fish Out Of Water

Michael Phelps has a chance to win eight gold medals at Athens. So he isn't going to take any chances before the Games begin.

August 08, 2004|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

So, for a 19th birthday present, what do you give a wave-making, record-breaking swimming phenomenon who has everything -- all the strokes, all the explosiveness, all the world's attention -- up to but not including fins and gills?

Debbie Phelps had a thought: How about a leisurely cruise around Baltimore harbor?

Debbie's son, Michael Phelps, has made his reputation in the water. Why not a little relaxation on top of it?

Bob Bowman, Phelps' longtime coach and possibly too avid a fan of "Gilligan's Island," had a question for that question.

"What if a storm comes up?" Bowman said to Debbie Phelps.

Just like that, Michael Phelps -- owner of three individual world records, pursuer of Mark Spitz's unequaled mark of seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics -- was landlocked. There would be no three-hour tour.

Cruise, out.

Steakhouse, in.

Debbie Phelps laughs as she tells the story, which happened in June. Who wouldn't laugh? Her son is the goggled, chlorine-drenched face of the Athens Olympics, already a Sports Illustrated cover man and the star of a television commercial showing Phelps churning laps across the Atlantic Ocean.

If anyone in Baltimore could handle a summer harbor storm, the list would have to start with Phelps.

Yet Bowman's cautious reflex reflects the state and packaging of Michael Phelps Inc. And if bubble wrapping it and slapping on a handle-with-care tag wasn't enough, Bowman joked about another option the day before Phelps' first race at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Long Beach last month.

"If I can get him back to that hotel right now and lock the door and not let him out till tomorrow morning, my job is over," he said, smiling.

Lockdown or not, Phelps emerged the next day and broke his world record in the 400-meter individual medley. He won three more individual events, finished second in two others and it took world records to beat him in the 200 backstroke and 100 butterfly. Though he qualified in a record six individual events, Phelps will swim five in Greece and could be on as many as three relays.

Spitz told Phelps during the trials he thought Phelps had the chance to do it, matching the Moby Dick of records, the seven golds of Munich, and claiming the $1-million bonus carrot dangled by Speedo. When there's so much talk about a swimmer redefining a sport, it's understandable that Team Phelps gets a little nervous about the precious cargo.

Baseball, soccer and lacrosse got left behind long before he hit high school and made the 2000 Olympic team at 15, finishing fifth in the 200 butterfly in Sydney. Dreams of joining his buddies on the football and golf team never got past the conversation stage with his mother and Bowman.

"I think it was more of just a laugh; I'm not too coordinated in other sports, so it would have been kind of funny," Phelps said. "One of the only reasons I wanted to do it was because like every single one of my friends I grew up with was on the starting football team. I'm like, 'Why not, give it a shot?' Then I just decided, 'No, probably not the best idea.' "

He didn't toy with the idea to scare Bowman.

"Everything from going bowling one day would kind of do Bob in," Debbie joked. "They're a great team. We have a great support system."

Handling Phelps' rare kind of talent would make most men nervous. Bowman recalled a series of mishaps every time the water animal ventured onto land to run, generating nightmares.

"Every time I made him run for about five or six years, it ended in something where I don't sleep for about three nights," he said. "Because he falls, he does his ankle, he does this. He tries to run really hard and as soon as he does, he falls."

This goes beyond the usual caution about it all unraveling in a fluke. Nearly everyone in swimming circles familiar with Michael Phelps' meteoric rise also would be aware of his household history. For a brief moment, in between the Summer Sanders and Misty Hyman butterfly eras, there was Whitney Phelps. Whitney followed her older sister, Hilary, into the pool, and found success more quickly and on a higher level, winning a national title in the 200 butterfly at age 14.

She went into the 1996 Olympic trials at Indianapolis as the favorite in that event, seeded No. 1. She left with a sixth-place finish and holding no ticket to Atlanta. During the lead-up to the trials, Whitney carried a secret of a severe back injury, which she finally gave up when the family returned home from Indianapolis.

"I didn't know she was injured. She wasn't letting anybody in on that one," Debbie said. "It wasn't till after we got home she said, 'Mom, I need to go to the doctor.' I said, 'Why?' She said, 'My back is killing me.' She told me she was in practice and she wouldn't even be able to do a flip turn."

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