Kept in isolation, Phelps gains world exposure

Anita Nall and Michael Phelps killed time one afternoon last week at an Old Navy store near their downtown hotel here. At the checkout line, Nall shook her head and kept quiet.

"I asked Michael, `Why are you buying sweats?' He said he needed them," Nall said. "I wanted to say: `Put them back, you don't need them, you'll have all the warm-ups you want in a week.' I let him buy them. I didn't want to jinx him."Nall, an Olympic gold medalist for the North Baltimore Aquatic Club in 1992, was among the family and friends who supported Phelps by respecting coach Bob Bowman's request to stay out of his charge's way. That helped the 15-year-old from Rodgers Forge become the youngest male on the U.S. swim team since 1932, and acquire all the authorized Olympic gear he wants.

Phelps qualified for the U.S. team with a runner-up finish in the 200-meter butterfly at the U.S. trials for the Olympic Games on Saturday night, when he moved up two spots in the final 50 meters.

"I was practicing my `We still love you' speech at 150 meters," Bowman said yesterday. "In the last 10 meters, I felt a little better."

Bowman sat next to Phelps, who wore his favorite Michigan cap, the bill folded down to nearly eye level. Literally and figuratively, the kid has had blinders on. Swim, eat and sleep have dominated his routine this summer, and Bowman was not going to let Phelps vary from it here.

Phelps received Cal Ripken treatment. He had a hotel room to himself, to take his afternoon naps undisturbed. His race schedule concluded with the 20th-fastest time in the preliminaries of the 200 individual medley yesterday morning, which meant a subdued celebration Saturday night.

The post-race meal was identical to his pre-race meal: a chicken sandwich and french fries in the hotel coffee shop.

"I tried to go to bed after that," Phelps said, "but I couldn't get to sleep until 11:30."

"That's late for him," Bowman said. "With the growth spurt he's gone through, he needs nine hours of sleep a night. When he's not pleasant to deal with, neither am I."

Phelps said he hadn't had time to call his girlfriend, Carolyn Blair, who goes to Dulaney High. He worked his second news conference in 14 hours, and the audience included his father, Fred. It was as close as he had been to his son in days.

"I took Michael and Bob [Bowman] to the airport last Monday," said Deborah Phelps, Michael's mother, yesterday afternoon. "I flew in Tuesday, and we spent some time together in the lobby of the pool Wednesday. I kissed him, and wished him luck. That's the last time I had my hands on him. I finally got a chance to hug him today."

Phelps' accomplishment is viewed by NBAC outsiders as an emergence from nowhere, but he came to the U.S. trials with the second-fastest time among American men this year. That came in March, a month after he went on record with the Towson High Talisman that his goal for 2000 was to compete in the Sydney Olympics.

That pleased Bowman, who turned Eric Wunderlich into a world-class breaststroker on the West Coast before he came to the NBAC in 1996. In April, Bowman gathered Michael and his mother for a discreet session of paper-signing. One form was for a passport. Others were from the U.S. Olympic Committee, regarding a roommate request for Sydney and physical measurements.

Many of those forms are obsolete. Michael has grown 4 inches this year; he's wearing size-14 shoes and has the metabolism of a badger.

"From out of nowhere, he started to ask for `dippy' eggs this summer," Deborah Phelps said of his craving for over-medium eggs. "He started eating four a day. One morning he had me fry up seconds. That's eight fried eggs, eight pieces of toast, melon, milk, the works."

Phelps will be fed and clothed by the USOC from Sunday, when he will report to a training camp in Pasadena, Calif., until he returns from Australia sometime in late September or early October.

Three rounds of the 200 butterfly at the Olympics will be held Sept. 18 and 19. Phelps will miss as many as four weeks of chemistry and geography, but his penmanship should improve. He's to the swim set what Eric Timberlake of 'N Sync is to prepubescent music fans. Phelps signed the customary programs, posters and kickboards. What was his oddest autograph request?

"The T-shirt a girl was wearing," Phelps said. "That was hard to do. I signed on her back."

Michael's fans in Sydney will include his parents. Fred Phelps, a sergeant with the Maryland State Police, has leave stockpiled and said he'll go to Australia "if I have to walk on water." His mother, an administrator at Loch Raven Academy, a Baltimore County middle school, requested time off in September two weeks ago.

Their son innocently put his age and accomplishment into perspective. "It's been a lifetime dream of mine to make an Olympic team," Phelps said. "I've followed all of the Olympic Games, from 1992 on. I can't remember '88."

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