With every stroke, Phelps makes history

They need to design new brag shirts for Michael Phelps.

The 15-year-old from Rodgers Forge was face-to-face with members of his family for the first time in a month yesterday. He's been to swimming heaven, and provided them with the road trip of a lifetime. Some Phelps fans barged into the International Aquatic Centre in white T-shirts that bore his name in big red letters on the front, his accomplishments in smaller print on the back.The shirts are obsolete. At the least, Phelps will belatedly begin his sophomore year at Towson High next week as one of his nation's most improbable Olympic finalists. At the most, he made history as the youngest American male ever to medal in Olympic swimming at the Games.

The youngest member of an American contingent of athletes that numbers more than 600, Phelps yesterday qualified for the Olympic final of the 200-meter butterfly. The final was to be contested tonight at the IAC, 4:20 a.m. this morning on the East Coast.

After Phelps surged into the final, he received a high five from American teammate Lenny Krayzelburg, who had just won Olympic gold in the 100 backstroke. Some of the world's best swimmers accepted and nurtured a kid who was just another age-group sensation a year ago. As much as with his talent, Phelps has made an impression with his guts.

Mark Schubert, head coach of the U.S. men's swim team, had an uneasy time watching Phelps come from last-place oblivion to third in his semifinal, and wondered how Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman, handled the pressure.

"I said to Bob, `How do you stand this?'" Schubert said. "I have never seen anyone his age like him. You look at the Olympic trials, the most pressure-packed meet in the world, and now the Olympics. To get as far as he has, he truly is phenomenal."

Phelps has tightened up in front of television cameras. Though he has a competitive maturity beyond his years, he is as loquacious as your average 15-year-old. Asked to assess the significance of someone his age making an Olympic final, Phelps shrugged and smiled.

Bowman, his coach from the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, has instructed Phelps on when to eat, sleep and swim since last win- ter, when it was apparent he could join world-record holder Tom Malchow as the U.S. entry in the 100 fly.

Just because Phelps is done competing at the Olympics doesn't mean Bowman is done mapping out his future. Phelps is supposed to be back in the Olympic pool tomorrow. There are the 2001 world championships to stay in shape for, and he might as well keep training as long as U.S. Swimming demands that its team members stay here until the Olympic swimming concludes Sunday.

Phelps' 10 p.m. curfew might be lifted tonight. The U.S. coaches limited his free time in the Olympic Village, because they didn't want a minor moving about there unsupervised. He will not stay around for the closing ceremonies, because he needs to get to school.

Phelps has spent four nights in Baltimore since early August. He kissed his mother goodbye at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Aug. 20, and headed to Olympic training camp in Pasadena, Calif. They were briefly reunited after the semifinals, and Phelps' oldest sister, Hillary, was the first to reach him in the area of the IAC where athletes can mingle with family and friends.

"After the preliminaries, somebody asked if I was his girlfriend," said Hillary, rolling her eyes.

The St. Paul, an insurance firm with offices in Mount Washington, not far from the Meadowbrook Swim Club where he trains, helped put up Phelps' mother, Debbie, and Hillary on a cruise ship on the north side of Sydney Harbor. She took a week's leave from her job as a middle-school administrator at Loch Raven Academy. An uncle and two aunts were also in the T-shirt brigade.

Phelps' father, Fred, a state trooper who lives in Glen Burnie, was also there to greet his son after the semifinals and wish him luck.

They were among the 18,000 who saw whether Ian Thorpe wasn't the only legend in the making at the Olympic pool.

"Someone like this only comes along once in a generation," said Schubert, the U.S. coach. "Michael's only going to get better."

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