By Paul McMullen
Baltimore Sun reporter
August 22, 2004
Whether simple or elaborate, Phelps denied himself pleasure in many aspects of his life as he built the strength and mental resolve that resulted in Olympic history.But now it's time to absorb his accomplishment, promote his corporate backers, see some ancient marvels and take a bow a week from today. How can the second half of the Athens Olympics produce a more worthy candidate to carry the American flag in the closing ceremony?
Here's what he doesn't have to do: be in the pool each morning swimming laps.
"He can take the month off," said Bob Bowman, the coach who shaped a gangly boy from the North Baltimore Aquatic Club into the most versatile swimmer ever.
Having given up his spot in last night's climax to the swim program, an act of sportsmanship that stunned the Olympic community, Phelps cheered from the front row.
When grateful replacement Ian Crocker helped the United States set a world record in the 400-meter medley relay, Phelps' role in Friday's preliminary earned him a sixth gold medal.
He didn't equal the record seven golds won by Mark Spitz in 1972, but add in a pair of bronzes, and Phelps finished with eight medals in Athens.
"I did something no one's ever done in the sport of swimming," Phelps said. "I wanted to be the first Michael Phelps and do something no one else ever did."
Since the Olympics were revived here in 1896, nearly 120,000 athletes have competed in the Summer Games. Only one other, Russian gymnast Alexander Dityatin, won eight in a single Games, but he had half of Phelps' gold total, and his feat came during an American boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
"If Michael doesn't get Sportsman of the Year from Sports Illustrated, he never will," said Rowdy Gaines, NBC's swim analyst. "No offense to Lance Armstrong, but come on."
Armstrong has taken over cycling's Tour de France. The Athens Olympics were a tour de force for Phelps, who went about the world's biggest athletic event as if it were just another meet in a series of achievements.
One shy of Spitz's seven golds, Phelps one-upped him on two fronts, as he became the first male swimmer to medal in five individual events and the first to win over three distances, 100, 200 and 400 meters.
Spitz raced 11 times over nine days in Munich. Phelps raced 17 times over seven days, against a broiling morning sun, hot August nights and deeper international competition.
"The most impressive thing is that he beats fresh guys in every race," said Janet Evans, who set swimming's oldest standing world record in 1989. "He kept coming back every night, plugging away. People forget, he's only 19. In Beijing, he's going to be better."
China will be host to what it hopes will be an efficient Olympics in 2008. The Olympic Aquatic Centre in Athens was supposed to have a canopy that cooled the water and competitors. It was shelved because organizers ran out of time to build it, but Phelps never lost his cool.
"This Olympics is more exhausting than any I've done, just because of Phelps," said NBC's Gaines. "I feel like I swam all of those races with him."
`They went crazy'
Family and friends felt the same.
Debbie Phelps told her son's story because he didn't have the time. She'll take a few extra days off from her job as a Baltimore County schools administrator and accompany her son from promotional appearances to the Parthenon.
Whitney Phelps fell short in her dream of making the 1996 U.S. Olympic team, a setback that was a turning point in her brother's development.
"It still isn't easy to watch swimming," Whitney Phelps said, "but I'm here to support Michael."
Fred Phelps, his father, found a lucky charm in a Japanese couple, rubbing their elbows before several races.
"They went crazy when Michael was in the water," he said.
Even one of Maryland's senators was there to cheer him on. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and his wife, Christine, toured his ancestral home in the Peloponnese before watching Phelps.
"My son John is a member of Meadowbrook," Sarbanes said of the Mount Washington pool that was a second home to Phelps. "He's told me about Michael for years, but you've got to see him to believe him."
Sarbanes spoke Thursday, in a lull between Phelps' victory in the 200 individual medley and a semifinal of the 100 butterfly.
When Phelps beat Crocker the next night in the butterfly final, the American fans gave a standing ovation, but few foreign athletes bothered to clap. Perhaps they've become bored by him, but one former skeptic acknowledged Phelps' greatness.
Fourteen months ago, Australian coach Don Talbot said Phelps hadn't proved himself over time. After Phelps starred at the world championships last year, Talbot said to see how he does at the Olympics.
"He didn't get his eight gold medals or seven, but he's Superman, no doubt about that," Talbot said. "The only one I ever saw like him was Spitz. Since that time, there hasn't been anybody as good."
That's an earth-shattering view Down Under because Australia's Ian Thorpe was the best swimmer in the world before Phelps came along.
Thorpe beat Phelps on Monday in the 200 freestyle, billed as the "race of the century," for Thorpe's third individual gold between the Sydney Olympics and here.
If he were a nation, "Phelpsland" would have been atop the individual medal standings for men's swimming. He had four solo wins; Australia and the rest of the United States had three apiece.
A bronze in the 400 freestyle relay Sunday night was followed by another behind Thorpe on Monday, albeit in a time that would have won every previous Olympic 200 freestyle. That effort most impressed Spitz, but the Spitz watch was over on the third night.
Was Phelps about to become another Matt Biondi, whose five golds in 1988 were a letdown? Had a $1 million bonus offer from Speedo produced more pressure than publicity?
The scrutiny was induced by Phelps, who turned professional at 16. Each individual gold medal was worth $75,000 in incentives from the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Swimming. Counting relay incentives and performance bonuses from Speedo, Phelps made about $900,000 here.
He ran the table after losing to Thorpe, his most prominent naysayer.
"There are goals out there that people will say are impossible to achieve," Bowman said. "Maybe they are, but the pursuit of them brings out the best in the human condition. I don't think anyone can say that what Michael has done isn't inspirational."
Ann Marie White is an Australian who used the prospect of a job at the swim venue as motivation to beat cancer. The first thing she asked Aug. 9 was whether it would be possible to get a photo of herself alongside Phelps.
Phelps will do a news conference today for Visa, which produced the commercial that shows him swimming from Athens to the Statue of Liberty and back. He'll try to get to tomorrow's gold medal softball game, hoping to see Jennie Finch pitch for the Americans.
There will be an announcement regarding a post-Athens tour of North America, starting in New York and leading up to October's world short-course championships in Indianapolis.
On the road nearly two months, Phelps will be leaving Rodgers Forge for good. In late October, he'll report for duty as the volunteer assistant coach at the University of Michigan, where he'll continue his relationship with Bowman, the school's new coach.
He wants that English bulldog and some of Thorpe's freestyle world records. When will Phelps grasp what he did here?
"He won't fully realize what this week means," Bowman said, "until he's 40."
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