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Pieces of Eight for Phelps

U.S. swimmer finishes with eight medals in eight events, tying an Olympic record. But does that trump Mark Spitz's seven golds?

August 22, 2004|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — The gesture was one only they would fully comprehend, passed between the swimming legend-in-residence, Mark Spitz, and the legend-on-deck, Michael Phelps.

Spitz, sitting in the stands at the Olympic Aquatic Center on Friday night, caught the attention of Phelps by calling to him after his remarkable comeback victory in the 100-meter butterfly. When Phelps looked up, Spitz flashed four fingers.

One finger for each individual gold medal.

In 1972, Spitz won four individual gold medals and added three more in relays, all in world-record times, at the Munich Games, an unmatched achievement. Phelps came closer to Spitz in these Games than anyone else had in the last 32 years, winning four individual gold medals, two more golds in relays and two bronzes, one in the 200 freestyle and another in the 400 freestyle relay. He finished with eight medals in eight events.

Put it this way: If Phelps stood alone as a country in the standings, he would have the most individual gold medals, four, in the men's swimming competition, followed by the United States and Australia with three each, Japan with two and the Netherlands one.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday August 23, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Olympic swimming -- A chart listing the medal count of U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps in Sunday's Sports section incorrectly stated that Phelps won eight gold medals in Athens. Phelps won six gold medals and two bronze medals.

And Phelps didn't even need to hit the water in the final relay of the eight-day meet to win his sixth gold medal. He stepped aside for Ian Crocker, giving up his spot in Saturday's 400 medley relay, which set a world record in 3 minutes 30.68 seconds, with Phelps cheering from the sideline. Because Phelps had been in the relay during the preliminary heats Friday, he won another gold.

Phelps, 19, became only the second athlete to win eight medals in one Olympics, equaling the feat of Russian gymnast Aleksandr Dityatin, who did so at the 1980 Moscow Games, which the United States boycotted. And Dityatin won three golds, not six.

"I'm impressed he could handle the pressure," Spitz said Saturday, noting he watched all of Phelps' medal swims. "I never doubted that he wasn't able to compartmentalize. But when he got third in the 200 and the relay got third, he put that aside, forgot about it and went about his business. That's a true sign of a champion."

Spitz was most impressed by Phelps' third-place finish behind world-record holder Ian Thorpe of Australia and defending champion Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands in the 200 freestyle Monday.

"In my opinion, he went from an IM swimmer with a great butterfly and backstroke to a world contender in the freestyle," Spitz said. "If Thorpe or Van den Hoogenband had made one slight error, he was right there to win the race. He had no experience to swim in the 200, and he stepped up."

Now comes debate about whether Phelps' eight medals in eight events trump Spitz's seven golds. Counting preliminary heats and semifinals, Phelps raced 17 times in seven days and set one world record in an individual race, the 400 individual medley. In 1972, Spitz had 11 races in nine days.

"I don't think you can even compare what he did to Mark," said Rowdy Gaines, former Olympic champion and NBC analyst. "It's a lot grander, and not taking anything away from Mark. What Mark accomplished in 1972, obviously was the greatest thing in history.

"I think this is the greatest thing in swimming history now because of the magnitude of it and the world scene. He had the greatest Olympics in history. Whether he goes down as the greatest Olympic swimmer in history, it's still out there and debatable."

Bob Bowman, who started coaching Phelps in 1997, seemed intrigued by comparisons of Phelps and Spitz.

"That's a good question," Bowman said about the separate achievements. "They're both really tough. I hope that Michael by coming so close [to Spitz] has proven that it's possible. It's not unbelievable. But it's nothing to be taken lightly."

Phelps came to Athens with one Olympics on his resume. At 15, as the youngest member of the U.S. team in Sydney, he seemed overwhelmed by his first final, finishing fifth in the 200 butterfly.

He will be leaving Greece with considerably more baggage and realizes life will be different after returning to the home he shares with his mother, Debbie, in suburban Baltimore. First of all, Bowman will give him a few days off from the pool, a week at least. Within a couple of months, Phelps will relocate to Ann Arbor, Mich., following Bowman, the new coach at the University of Michigan.

"I still think I'm a normal 19-year-old kid, but things have changed," Phelps said. "I don't even know if I can explain it.... There's so much going through my mind and I'd probably confuse all you guys if I'd answer it."

Bowman isn't sure when Phelps will fully realize the impact of his performance. That may be at least two decades and a few million meters away.

"When he's about 40, and I mean that seriously," Bowman said. "I don't think he'll have that perspective on it until then. He doesn't know what history is."

Private moments have been difficult to carve out here. But on Saturday, Bowman asked Phelps: "Was it worth it? Were all the IM sets you hated, worth it?"

Said Phelps: "Oh yeah."

Bowman laughed: "I said, 'Well, remember that in about six months.' "

A coach's job is never done, even after all the accolades.

"I'm going to overhaul his breaststroke," Bowman said. "I'm going to go back to square one, tear it apart and rebuild it. My effort here did not give me the result that I wanted.

"This just feels good to know when we were really struggling at times, things were not looking like they were going to turn out right. I was screaming, and he was having temper tantrums. We went through all of that, and it really kind of paid off."

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