Phelps, 14, steps toward Olympics

As scores of teen-agers walked the pool deck in search of Olympians at the University of Michigan's Canham Natatorium this weekend, there was one teen in the pool trying to become one.

At the inaugural Key Bank Swim Classic, Baltimore's Michael Phelps, 14, swam against what Michigan men's swim coach Jon Urbanchek called "80 percent of this year's U.S. Olympic team."Watching Phelps at the starting blocks gave the only clue as to his youth, as he wore his headphones until seconds before each race.

Phelps, swimming for the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, competed in five events during the three-day classic and qualified for the 2000 Summer Olympics trials Aug. 9-16 in Indianapolis in all of them.

Perhaps even more impressively, Phelps' 400 freestyle time of 3:58.80 on Friday was five seconds faster than any time ever recorded by a 14-year-old, according to his coach, Bob Bowman.

"I just wanted to come out here and see what I could do against these guys," Phelps said as he sucked on a water bottle after Saturday's races.

Although pleased with the impressive performances, Bowman downplayed the prediction that Phelps could become the next Olympics champion.

"It's not something where we sit down every day and say, `You know, we've got to try and make this Olympics team,'" Bowman said. "I'd just like him to have a long career in this sport."

Michigan's Urbanchek, however, could not say enough about the potential of Phelps, who has been swimming for only seven years.

"If anyone has a chance to be a sleeper [at the upcoming Olympics trials], it's this young man," he said.

Phelps was by far the youngest performer at the three-day event - the average age was 22. But that didn't seem to be an issue.

In the 200 individual medley, Phelps went up against Tom Wilkins, a '96 Olympic gold medal winner in Atlanta - and beat him.

"It's been great to swim against these guys," Phelps said. "I got a chance to talk to a couple of them and they gave me some positive feedback."

Phelps' sister, Britney, also was an elite swimmer. She won a national championship in the 200-meter butterfly as a member of the '94 U.S. world championship team.

When asked if his parents were swimmers, Phelps smiled and said, "No. My father was a football player and my mother was a cheerleader."

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