He walked onto the biggest swimming stage ever constructed wearing mittens, his customary headphones and a look of apprehension. Michael Phelps climbed out of his first dip into the Sydney International Aquatic Centre with no worries, as he won his preliminary of the 200-meter butterfly at the Olympics with a time bested by only two others in the 46-man field.
A 15-year-old from Rodgers Forge who is the youngest member of the U.S. men's swimming team since 1932, Phelps is poised to write additional history. The youngest American male ever to medal at the Olympics was 16, and if form holds, Phelps should safely maneuver his way through the semifinals and contend for at least the bronze.The final in the 200 fly will be held halfway around the world tomorrow night, 4:20 a.m. tomorrow in Baltimore. Tonight's semifinals were to be conducted at 5:19 a.m. today Baltimore time.
"I love it here. It's a great pool," Phelps said of a facility in which eight world records were established over the first two days of Olympic swimming. "I just wanted to do my best time. I guess I was a little nervous. I looked up and saw 18,000 people. I don't know where she's sitting, but I heard my sister [Hillary] call my name."
Phelps will start his sophomore year at Towson High three weeks late, and he has a reputation as a slow starter and strong finisher in his specialty. Competing in the fifth of six preliminary heats, Phelps was fifth at the 50 and 100 walls, touched fourth at 150, then blew by 26-year Russian Denis Pankratov and the rest of the field to finish in 1 minute, 57.30 seconds.
It was Phelps' fourth straight personal best in the event, as he came from relative obscurity to claim second at the U.S. trials last month in 1:57.48. He improved his time in each of the three rounds in Indianapolis, and the plan is to do the same here.
"That race went exactly as we hoped it would," said Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club.
The final preliminary was taken by world-record holder Tom Malchow, a 24-year-old American who established an Olympic record of 1:56.25. Malchow, incidentally, was the only contestant to better Phelps' closing 50 of 30.30. Ukrainian Denys Sylant'yev won an earlier prelim in 1:56.42. Four others broke 1:58 in the preliminaries, and Phelps appeared to be a shoo-in to advance to the final.
The crowd favorite in the medal chase will be Australian Justin Norris, who was fourth fastest in the preliminaries.
The youngest American male ever to medal in Olympic swimming was John Kinsella, in 1968. Kinsella was 16 when he took silver in the 1,500 free in Mexico City.