Fifth place goes down like 'butter'

SYDNEY, Australia

He had the right reaction for a 15-year-old who had just finished fifth in a swimming final at the Summer Olympics.

"I just had a dream come true," Michael Phelps said with a broad smile that refused to ebb, lest anyone wonder if it was genuine.It was the right reaction for a Towson High School sophomore still wearing braces on his bottom teeth, a gangly kid whose major revelations after the race were a) he really missed his cat, and b) some people at school might treat him differently now and he's "going to have to watch out for that."

His hometown rose yesterday morning and scrambled for news of his race, which took place shortly after 4 a.m. Tuesday morning in Baltimore. A medal in the final of the 200-meter butterfly at the Sydney International Aquatic Center certainly would have served as the ultimate achievement for the country's youngest male Olympic swimmer in 68 years.

But this wasn't Michael Johnson competing with the weight of a nation's expectations on him. This wasn't some well-paid, shadowy professional athlete slowly roasting on the win-or-else burner so common in sports today.

This was a fledgling who had gained nearly eight inches and 60 pounds in the past year and found comfort in the powers of his lucky can of soup.

After he touched the wall behind four others, having swum the fastest race of his life in a time that would have won the gold medal in Atlanta four years ago, it was time to take a step back and go over the facts.

Fifth. In the world. And still not old enough to drive a car.

Who needs a medal?

Phelps seemed to understand that, maybe better than anyone.

"I would have loved to win a medal," he said, "but I dropped my [personal] best by a second and that was my goal."

Reporters from across the country and around the world pressed close to him after he climbed from the pool and asked the typical questions you hear after you don't win. Should you have used different tactics? Stayed closer to the leaders in the first 100 meters? Anything you regret, Michael?

He just kept smiling and responding with an unwitting innocence that made a mockery of the probing questions.

"I did my best," he said.

A 15-year-old in the Olympics doesn't have to say any more.

Nor, for that matter, does a 15-year-old in the Towson Rec Council in-house leagues, on which Phelps was raised.

"I tried," he said, "and I'm really happy. This is a pretty big meet and all."

Yeah, pretty big. Certainly bigger than the Baltimore County high school championships.

Phelps has outgrown that and all other local and state honorifics in the wake of his rise. He'll operate only on the national and worldwide stages from now on. His next assignment? The world championships in Japan next spring.

Yes, he'll have to deal with expectations from now on, as is the case with any Olympic prodigy. Only once do you get to be the out-of-nowhere phenom with nothing to lose.

With the swimming fraternity now anointing him as the next big thing, he'll be expected not only to win a medal at the 2004 Olympics in Greece, but maybe even lead the U.S. team - a burden he can handle, says his coach, Bob Bowman.

"He has what all the champions have, the one thing you can't coach, the ability to relax and focus under pressure," Bowman said.

But otherwise, he's just the kid who lives down the street. The one who goes by your house on a scooter.

"I was really excited to swim, but I'm also really excited to be going home," said Phelps, scheduled to make the long flight back to Baltimore once the swimming competition ends Saturday. "I've been gone a really long time. I miss everything."

His room. His friends. His cat.

"Her name is Savannah," Phelps said. "She sleeps on my stomach every night."

And his friends?

"The ones I had [before swimming in the Olympics] are going to treat me the same way, and things are going to be the same with them," he said. "But I know there are others who are going to try to treat me better than they did."

The politics of the high school hallway, a rare visitor to the Olympic consciousness.

About as rare as a 15-year-old in the swimming finals.

"When is it going to sink in, Michael, everything that has happened?" someone asked.

Back came the smile.

"I think it's already sunk in," he said. "Competing in the Olympics is a dream for most people, and I just did. It happened fast, but it happened. And it was amazing."

He finished behind a 24-year-old gold medalist from Minnesota and a 23-year-old silver medalist from the Ukraine, and he was ahead of a 23-year-old from England, a 26-year-old from Russia and a 29-year-old from France.

Forty-six athletes from around the world swam in the event, a lucky and talented few culled from a much larger pool of dreamers.

The youngest of all, the one from Rodgers Forge, finished fifth.

In the vernacular of his age, he did awesome.

Or, like, even better.
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