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Spitz's feat in his sights

First in a series of occasional articles on Michael Phelps and his path to the 2004 Olympics.

Swimmers around the world want to catch Michael Phelps.

He's chasing an Olympic legend.

One year from today, the 2004 games will commence in Athens, Greece, the homeland of the ancient Olympics and the host nation when the movement was revived in 1896 as an international sports festival.

The greatest modern Olympic achievement occurred in 1972, when American swimmer Mark Spitz won a record seven gold medals in Munich, West Germany. Spitz's feat has been revered as unmatchable in the past three decades.

Until now.

Phelps, an 18-year-old from the Baltimore suburb of Rodgers Forge, just finished a globe-trotting four months that punctuated his methodical rise to the top of the sport.

Known as "Little Phelps" just three years ago, he possesses the physical gifts and mental toughness to make a serious run at the Spitz standard.

Spitz set nine individual world records in 1972. All seven of his Olympic finals - four individual events and three relays - were won with world records.

From early April in Indianapolis to Saturday night in College Park, over 130 days, Phelps set eight. He would have had nine, but he was upset by an American teammate in the 100-meter butterfly at the world championships in Barcelona, Spain. That result illuminated the perils that await Phelps as he attempts to cram talent and kismet into a tiny 2004 window.

Olympians don't say, "Wait 'til next year." They simmer for four.

Ian Crocker rose up and beat Phelps last month. The star in Barcelona was supposed to be Natalie Coughlin, but she took ill. Tracey Caulkins' lofty Olympic aspirations in 1980 were disrupted by a presidential boycott.

Behind the wheel of his Cadillac SUV, Phelps must be more cautious than the standard teen motorist.

"He's going to win gold medals in the two individual medleys unless he's hit by a train," Spitz said. "Nobody is in his league in the 200 fly. In his individual program, the 100 fly is the big question mark, because of Crocker. Now, when you factor in relay participation, the complexity of trying to pull this off gets kind of weird."

Speaking from his Los Angeles home Monday night, Spitz alluded to a scenario that could confront Phelps in Athens: He wins the 100 and 200 butterflys and the 200 and 400 individual medleys, all in world-record time; he helps the U.S. team to more gold in the 400 medley relay, but the world championship Russian team wins the 400 freestyle relay and the Australians continue their hold on the 800 freestyle relay.

Phelps could collect five gold medals and two silver, the second-greatest accomplishment in Olympic history.

And some would consider his quest to have failed.

"You're right, that could happen," Phelps said. "After I won the 200 backstroke [at last week's Summer Nationals], the headline in one of the Australian papers said something like, 'Phelps wins, but fails,' because I didn't break the world record. This summer prepared me for what the coming year is going to be like."

Motivated in part by skepticism and media slights, Phelps is dealing with scrutiny that will intensify in the months ahead and climax in Athens. Rowdy Gaines, the swimming analyst for the network of the Olympics, said Phelps is "going to be NBC's poster boy next summer."

Emphasis on the boy.

A few weeks after he graduated from Towson High and a few days before he departed on a European excursion that took him from a training camp in France to Barcelona to a scouting visit to Athens, Phelps spun one of the rotating rims on his Escalade. He tried to stop it with his bare foot, the reason his right big toe remains black and blue.

Phelps spent yesterday in New York with his agent, meeting prospective sponsors, and he was scheduled to go live this morning on the Today Show to start the Athens hype. It would all be intimidating, except he was signing autographs as an age-group sensation at 12, went to the Sydney Olympics and set his first world record at 15 and became a professional athlete at 16, when he signed an endorsement deal with swimsuit manufacturer Speedo.

"Michael tends to see interest as support, not pressure," said Bob Bowman, the coach who has steered his career.

Phelps' story will be told countless times in the year ahead. A dominant backdrop is the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, which was on the swim map before Phelps was born. Co-founded by the entrepreneurial sweat of Murray Stephens, the NBAC produced Olympic gold medalist Theresa Andrews in 1984. Anita Nall and Beth Botsford were Olympic champions in 1992 and 1996, respectively.

In 1996, the club's roster included 15-year-old Whitney Phelps, one of Michael's two sisters (Hillary, the oldest, was also a record-setting swimmer). Ranked third in the world in the 200 butterfly, Whitney was denied a spot in the Atlanta Olympics by a back injury and jitters, an episode Phelps has said "devastated us."

Bowman joined the NBAC staff that summer.

"I told Michael's mom that things are going to change and they'll never be the same," Bowman said. "She said, 'Oh, no, not Michael, he's too young.' I told her, 'What are we going to do to stop him?' When he's ready to go, he's got to let it go. I saw his ability to handle anything - pressure, performance, anxiety.

"He was made to swim."

Bowman said Phelps' long torso and wide shoulders allow him to "plane really well on top of the water." Some competitors need 30 freestyle strokes to cover a 50-meter pool; Phelps takes 26. He's 6 feet 4, a few pounds over 190 and still filling out.

The toppling of swimming records is often followed by whispers of steroid or growth hormone abuse. One meeting with Fred Phelps, a large man who tried out for the Washington Redskins before he became a Maryland state trooper, should quash any notion that illegal substances fueled his son's rise.

Phelps' mother, Debbie, is an educator in Baltimore County. His parents, natives of Allegany County in Western Maryland, separated in 1994 and later divorced. In addition to good genes, their son has a work ethic that has been steered by Bowman. When Ed Moses, America's best breaststroker, said, "Michael's an aerobic animal," he was complimenting his drive, not his physique.

Phelps can't work any harder than he did the past year, but his strokes and turns will become more refined.

From the Eminem track he listens to on his compact disc player headphones before a race to nap time to the dates when Bowman predicts his pupil will break down under the strain of swimming more than 50 miles a week, no detail is left to chance as coach and athlete seek a level where Phelps doesn't have to be at his best to win gold medals.

Despite that deliberation, there's a freshness attached to Phelps. He knew he was going to set multiple world records in Barcelona, but after every one, he was like a kid on Christmas morning.

Phelps became the first person to set world records in two individual events in the same day and totaled five in one meet, the most ever. In April in Indianapolis, he became the first American man to win national titles in three of the four strokes. Last week in College Park, he became the first to win five individual titles in one meet.

Spitz, 53, and involved in motivational speaking and finance, never did those things. In a sport validated by the Olympics, however, he delivered with the whole world watching.

American Matt Biondi came closest to Spitz's feat in 1988, when he won gold in the three relays and two individual events, lost another gold by a hundredth of a second and took bronze in a seventh event. Australian rival Ian Thorpe had the hometown backing of Sydney in 2000, but didn't meet expectations.

Now comes Phelps, who has forced those considering his potential to think outside the box.

Before he gets to Athens, Phelps has to maneuver his way through the U.S. trials in July in California. There will be no relays in Long Beach, and his range leads to speculation that he could try a fifth individual event, with the option of passing on it in Greece.

Bowman is coy about the schedule, but Phelps is blunt about his aspirations.

"I'm doing what I love to do, which is swimming," Phelps said. "If everything goes as well as I want it to, then maybe that could be going after Mark Spitz's accomplishments."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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