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OLYMPICS / ATHENS 2004 | Bill Plaschke

Phelps' Baptism: Letting His Feelings Out and the World In

August 15, 2004|Bill Plaschke

ATHENS — The ancient Greeks so believed in the transforming powers of water, some thought the earth floated in it.

Michael Phelps proved them right by simply diving in it.

He dipped into his first Olympic race Saturday as just another swimming tool, an emotionless vessel with all the personality of a barge.

He climbed out about four minutes later as a person.

He shouted. He hugged. He sang. He trickled tears. He told secrets.

A pleasing Poseidon adventure, he was.

"This is a dream come true to me ... since I was a little kid, every single day waking up and hoping to win an Olympic gold medal," he said after winning his first, setting a world record in the 400-meter individual medley.

Dreams? Cool Michael Phelps has never talked about dreams.

It was the first race in his celebrated chase of Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals, but, for the first time, it seemed about something else.

"My goal is right here," he said, holding up the single gold medal. "I'm perfectly happy right now."

That sound you just heard was the record-hungry folks at Speedo fainting on the pool deck.

While endorsers want him to go after Spitz, Phelps seems more interested in finding himself.

He acted surprised at the medal podium, as if he didn't quite know where to stand, goofiness followed by humility.

Later, at the end of a relatively lengthy news conference, an official asked him how much longer he wanted to answer questions.

"Ten minutes," he said.

"Five more minutes!" the official shouted to the media.

"OK, five, 10 minutes, whatever," Phelps said with a smile.

It was good for him, and good for us. Having viewed him mostly as a detached Superman, the sports world will certainly embrace this inner Clark Kent, watery phone booth and all.

"It was tear jerking," he said. "I've thought about this day my entire career."

Swim folks have thought about this moment the entire summer, but never like this.

Everyone figured Phelps would cannonball the competition in this, his best event. But who would have thought that immediately afterward he would seem happier for the guy who finished second?

That would be Eric Vendt, the former USC star who had a great finishing kick from Lane 1, which is as unusual as a baseball player scoring from first on a single.

Phelps touched the wall, checked out the scoreboard, saw his record ... then realized that Vendt had risen from the deep to steal a silver medal. Now he was really happy.

He shouted, pumped his fist and dragged Vendt into a headlock-hug, raising Vendt's arm as if the finish had been reversed.

Said Vendt: "It seemed like he was more excited about my race than his own race."

Said Phelps: "It means so much more to me to have Eric win the silver. This is the way to do it, to go 1-2."

One-two? Singular Michael Phelps thinks about somebody besides number one?

He was so emotional that he even acted as if he was going to give up one of the swims that he might need in his chase of Spitz.

"One event down, six to go," he said, failing to include his potential -- and controversial -- entry into today's 400 freestyle relay.

Was he dropping out?

"That depends," he said.

His coach, Bob Bowman, smiled and said, "He was not thinking very clearly."

Whatever, this fresh-spring Phelps is much more fun than the chlorinated Phelps.

Before, many would watch him shut out the world with those headphones until just before stepping on the starting blocks and wonder the name of the song.

Now the world knows, Phelps telling us Saturday it is Eminem and Nate Dogg's "Till I Collapse."

The final lyrics of that song:

I will not fall,

I will stand tall,

Feels like no one could beat me.

Phelps won't be asked to star in the new Greek movie, "Eight Kilometer," but we hear him.

For the first time, we hear him.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke

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