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A pool of expectations

The Beijing Olympics are a year away, but U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps already is the subject of much hype, which is not exactly his cup of tea

August 08, 2007|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Spotting the magazine cover truly got to Michael Phelps, unnerving him in a way the likes of Ian Thorpe was never able to do or Ian Crocker, Aaron Peirsol and Pieter van den Hoogenband can't do now.

And if that wasn't enough, there was this kicker of a headline: "The Greatest Athlete of All Time."

Muhammad Ali, Pele and Michael Jordan get out of the way, and make room for swim star Phelps.

"I look over and there's my half-naked body on the news rack," Phelps said. "I'm like, 'You've got to be kidding me.' I saw that quote and, 'Geez, only adds more pressure to it.' I'm a year out, come on now. It's weird."

But there was another flash of apprehension. He was worried about purchasing the national magazine, desperate for some measure of anonymity. Price Check, Mr. Phelps. His active mind held an inner dialogue, hoping he wouldn't have to hand the clerk a card with his name on it.

"I'm like, 'Don't pay with a credit card,' " Phelps said. " 'Please have enough cash, so I don't have to pay with a credit card.' I did have the cash."

Such is life under scrutiny, now an exact year to the day to the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics in Beijing. Eight medals at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, six of them gold, and another sublime performance at the world championships in Melbourne, Australia, this spring (seven gold medals, five world records) has meant the face of the upcoming Games is decidedly in acceleration mode.

Call it the Phelps Factor.

He has helped to turn swimming into a marquee event, and his impact on the Beijing Games has already been felt.

The swimming finals, for example, are being held in the morning Beijing time instead of the traditional evening slot to accommodate NBC's insistence that the event be shown live in the U.S. in prime time.

The sport's rising status also has meant promotional trips to China for Phelps since the world championships ended in April, including one this week.

You might say elevating a sport is a marathon process, not a mere 50-meter sprint, even for someone blessed with a formidable wingspan, as Phelps is. Still, he has noticed the heat building around him.

"Progress is rising -- a year out of Athens, and I don't think my face and my picture was on the cover of Men's Journal," Phelps said. "I really do think over time things will change. But it's not going to be in the next four or five years."

The 22-year-old Phelps will have two more cracks at the ultimate prize -- referring, of course, to his pursuit of icon Mark Spitz and those record seven Olympic gold medals. His plan is deceptively simple: two more Summer Games in what would be his prime, first in Beijing, and then London in 2012, pulling down the curtain on his Olympic career.

Phelps, during an interview with The Times at an Italian café in late June, was emphatic that he would not forge ahead to the 2016 Games. Even if the Games were awarded to Chicago, he told his coach, Bob Bowman, that four Olympics would be more than enough.

"London will be my last one -- 2016 is a long way away," Phelps said. "Nine more years. I couldn't do it. I told Bob, I will not swim when I'm 30 years old.

"I would have liked 2012 in New York City. If they had gotten it, I would have done my last meet, my last event on American soil -- 2016 is a long way away. I don't think Bob and I could make it nine more years. We've been going at it. . . ."

Nine more years? There were times people wondered whether the often volatile and complex relationship could last nine more minutes.

"When you're together that long and you're two really headstrong people, you butt heads," Bowman said. "And Michael, quite frankly, as a child and even today as an adult, he's not the easiest person to get to do what you want him to do sometimes."

Bowman was talking in his office next to the pool at the University of Michigan. But Beijing was never far from sight. At the far end of the pool was the ubiquitous countdown clock : 409 days 12 hours 52 minutes. . . 22 seconds.

This clock, though, is hardly necessary to motivate Phelps.

"I have a lot of tools I can use -- sometimes a sledgehammer," Bowman said. "The good thing is Michael is motivated by many things. He's one of the rare people that he's motivated by failure. He's motivated by success, motivated by congratulations, motivated by stupid comments."

Or even Libby Lenton in the opening leg of a friendly mixed 400 relay at Duel in the Pool in April in Sydney, Australia.

"I remember going down the first lap, and she was kind of right at my shins," Phelps said with a laugh. "I was like, 'Oh, this is not good.' I knew she would jump up on the lane line and kind of drag, the smart way to do it. I remember I was going right into the 50 wall, and I turned and went completely on the other side of the lane."

So there.

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