Michael Phelps is about to take on Ian Crocker, Aaron Peirsol, Ian Thorpe and other champion swimmers seeking to keep him from ruling the pool at the 2004 Olympics.
Phelps will also face a daunting opponent he can't see: the weight of great expectations fixed on his broad shoulders.
It's called pressure.
Advertising campaigns, a million-dollar bonus, national pride and a place in Olympic history are riding on his performance, which will be deemed a disappointment if it doesn't produce multiple gold medals.
Some athletes would flinch at the stressful circumstances.
"Thank God it's not me," fellow U.S. swimmer Natalie Coughlin said recently.
But others don't mind the pressure and expectations. Phelps, 19, says he loves it.
"I don't look at the attention as pressure. I look at it as support," Phelps said. His coach, Bob Bowman, said the comment was not just a bold pose.
"I think he likes being in the position of being expected to win, because that means you're the best," Bowman said. "Now, that doesn't mean you win every time, but that's the kind of person Michael is. He's a prime-time player. He wants the ball in his hands when he has to hit the shot to win the game."
The Rodgers Forge resident is taking aim at Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals, set in 1972. Although he hasn't announced which combination of relays and individual events he will swim, he would be a heavy favorite in almost any individual event he would enter.
But as sports history has repeatedly shown, most recently in the NBA Finals last month, being a heavy favorite doesn't always guarantee success.
"In fact, it can be very debilitating in some respects," said Tom McMillen, the former Maryland Terrapins star who played on the U.S. Olympic basketball team that lost a controversial final to the Soviet Union in the 1972 Games.
"When you think you're supposed to win, that fear of failure can become part of the equation," McMillen said. "It shouldn't be, but when you go in with the odds stacked in your favor, it makes you think, 'What if I lose?' You think about those things. It's part of the mental process."
The Los Angeles Lakers' loss to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals last month was a stunner, though not quite on par with other famous defeats, such as the Baltimore Colts' loss to the New York Jets in Super Bowl III, Georgetown's loss to Villanova in the 1985 Final Four and the Soviet Union's loss to the United States in the 1980 hockey "Miracle."
Did the pressure of being expected to win contribute to those defeats? Former Colt Tom Matte, who played in Super Bowl III, said that loss was more about being outcoached, but added "that kind of fear [of failure] can creep into your thoughts, no question. You do think about it."
Some athletes don't. Michael Jordan kept winning NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls when everyone expected no less. So did John Wooden's UCLA basketball teams and the New York Yankees of the 1940s and 1950s.
"It's really the fundamental test of greatness, the ability to face that kind of pressure and overcome it," McMillen said. "Those that can, that's why they're the Michael Jordans of the world."
Of course, in one sense, athletes competing on teams have it easier than those competing in individual sports, such as Phelps.
"When you're on a team, you can go, 'Well, if I'm off, the other guys will pick me up,'" Matte said. "For an individual such as [Phelps], there's no spreading it around. It's all on you."
And for Olympians who are heavily favored in an individual sport, there's the unsettling knowledge that if something goes wrong, their shot at redemption is four long years away.
"In my opinion, the Olympics are very difficult when you go in as a heavy favorite," said speed skater Dan Jansen, a 1994 gold medalist. "America doesn't really pay attention to most of the [Olympic] sports, so you're basically out of the spotlight for four years even if you're winning, and then suddenly everything comes down to one moment that defines you. That's tough. You know you're going to feel like a failure if you don't come through."
Again, some react better than others. Carl Lewis was expected to dominate the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, and he did, winning four gold medals. Swimmer Matt Biondi faced expectations similar to Phelps before the 1988 Games and came home with five golds.
On the other hand, decathlete Dan O'Brien was a strong favorite to win the gold in 1992 but was so overcome by the pressure he didn't even make it out of the national trials.
He did come back four years later to win a gold medal.
Jansen also succumbed to the pressure of being heavily favored in 1988 and 1992, suffering wrenching defeats before finally taking a gold medal in 1994.
What separates those who succumb from those who don't?
"Part of it is just their makeup; I do believe that," Jansen said. "I'm kind of reserved and quiet, not one to toot my own horn. [Skier] Bill Johnson, on the other hand, was totally cocky and outspoken, and he just said, 'Well, I'm going to go out there and win,' and he did."
Phelps isn't cocky or outspoken, but he belongs to a cadre of elite young athletes who have grown up watching ESPN and become accustomed to dealing with high expectations from the media and fans. Soccer's Freddy Adu, golf's Michelle Wie and basketball's LeBron James are his peers in that group.
"I think they're much more capable of withstanding the pressure than young athletes from my generation," said Rowdy Gaines, a swimming gold medalist in the 1984 Olympics who now provides commentary for NBC.
"Today, they get thrust into it and it's all they know, so they get used to it," Gaines said. "I got thrust into it when I was 18, and I went 'Holy crap.' It was a huge adjustment for me. It's not for Michael. He already knows all about pressure.
"He's not going to choke. He loves having everyone expecting him to win. He might get beat by a better swimmer in some event, but he isn't going to choke."
Conditioned for success
Robert Nideffer, a sports psychologist in San Diego who works with Olympic athletes, conceded there is "a fair amount of choking" in the Games.
"But you don't see it much from athletes who have a track record of great success, those who have won world championships and set multiple records over a period of years, as opposed to those who might have made the Games because of one great performance," he said.
"If everything has to be on your side for you to be a winner, yes, there's going to be choking. But if you have been dominant, it's not so likely to happen. Athletes like that are pretty much in control. They know they're going to perform at the necessary level."
Phelps would seemingly fall into the latter category, Nideffer said. The psychologist compared his example to that of Lanny Bassham, a 1976 Olympic gold medalist in rifle shooting.
"As he practiced for the Games, he was basically breaking the world record every day," Nideffer said, "so he didn't have any doubt that he was going to come in and perform at that level when it mattered. That calmed him down. It's almost common sense. The more data you can provide yourself that says, 'This is me,' the easier it is to calm yourself down. Hopefully, this is what Michael is doing and what the people around him are doing."
History of producing
Phelps has a history of producing under pressure. He has been the swimmer to beat in most of his races over the past few years, and he has won all but a few. Leigh Nugent, coach of the Australian national team, said recently Phelps "is not the sort of athlete that would crumble under pressure."
Bowman is so confident in Phelps' mental strength that he has never brought in a psychologist for counseling, as many coaches do. Asked recently if he had ever seen Phelps afraid to lose, Bowman chuckled and said, "Not yet."
That might be why Bowman allowed Phelps' agent to negotiate the arrangement with Speedo that would bring Phelps $1 million if he wins seven golds.
Some would argue that was unfair, putting Phelps in the position of having to reconcile anything less than seven as a failure.
In Bowman's estimation, Phelps can handle that stress.
"The bar is where it is. Michael can only do what he can do," Bowman said. "But no, I don't think it's too high."
Sun staff writer Paul McMullen contributed to this article.
Olympic swim trials
Who: 650 U.S. swimmers.
What: Qualifying for the 2004 Olympics. The first two in each of 13 events earn berths in Athens, Greece.
When: Tomorrow to July 14.
Where: Long Beach (Calif.) Swim Center.
TV: NBC (chs. 11, 4). Friday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 8 p.m.; July 18, 1 p.m. (tape).
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