For precocious Phelps, it's a race against time

The buzz is building over Michael Phelps.

The 15-year-old from Rodgers Forge has the sinew and strokes to someday be mentioned with America's swimming legends. In 2004 and 2008, he could collect times and titles worthy of Weissmuller and Schollander, Spitz and Biondi.Right.

And wrong.

The future is now for Phelps, the man-child who has kept growing, training and presumably improving since a month ago today, when he shocked everyone in Indianapolis except himself and his coach by becoming the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic men's swim team since 1932.

Phelps was 6 feet 3, 165 pounds when he covered the 200-meter butterfly in 1 minute, 57.48 seconds, swift enough for a runner-up finish at the trials and the fourth-fastest time ever by an American. Two weeks ago, he was measured at 6-4, 170. Who knows how large he will be next Monday, when two days of competition in the event begin at the 17,500-seat Sydney International Aquatic Centre.

The itinerary for the American swim team has Tom Dolan, Jenny Thompson and the gang checking into the Olympic Village tomorrow. They've been training in Brisbane since last week. Before that, they spent two weeks at a closed-door training camp in Pasadena, Calif. Before he dozed off at the Doubletree one night, Phelps pondered what he's accomplished, and what could come in Australia.

"Aaron Peirsol and I talked about it one night before we went to sleep," Phelps of his 17-year-old roommate. "We could be the two youngest [American] guys to medal. I try not to think about that too much."

Phelps has the ninth-fastest time in the world this year. Consider the centimeters that he has added to his wingspan, multiply them over dozens of strokes and it's hardly a stretch to envision Phelps becoming the youngest American male ever to medal at the Olympics. John Kinsella was 16 when he took silver in the 1,500 freestyle in 1968.

Publicly, Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman, acknowledge the possibility of a medal. Privately, they are thinking bigger than bronze. While Phelps' growth chart has seen him soar at least 5 inches this year, Bowman plotted a course that has caused Tom Malchow to curse the kid's development.

Malchow may have peaked in June, when he lowered the world record to 1:55.18. He and Phelps were separated by 2.35 seconds at the March nationals, .61 of a second at the trials.

"Whatever my best expectations were for Michael, he's exceeded them," Bowman said before one of Phelps' afternoon workouts at Rose Bowl Aquatics. "He's training extremely well, better than anyone here in my opinion. We went back to hard training after the trials. We did 10 days of normal, midseason type work, and he's not getting too tired out."

Head coach Mark Schubert and the rest of the American staff have given Bowman leeway that is uncommon for personal coaches in Olympic camps.

They have seen the symbiotic relationship between a phenom and a 35-year-old coach who himself was a respectable butterflyer at Florida State. Equally important for Phelps, Bowman picked up a degree in child psychology there.

From the second week in August to the last week in September, Debbie Phelps will have had the youngest of her three children under her roof for four nights. The separation is a given and a goal for a swimming family. Michael was inspired by his sisters Hillary and Whitney, as the former earned a college scholarship and the latter came close to a berth on the 1996 Olympic team.

Bowman joined the North Baltimore Aquatic Club staff shortly before the Atlanta Olympics. NBAC boss Murray Stephens apprised him of young Michael's potential, but they didn't give him an adult dose of double training sessions until earlier this year. He began 2000 as just another freshman at Towson High, but his sophomore year there has been delightfully delayed.

"I miss him greatly," said Debbie Phelps, who embarked for Australia yesterday, accompanied by Hillary. Whitney chose to begin her senior year at Nevada-Las Vegas on time, trying to revive a career that has been stalled by a chronic back condition.

Whitney has represented the United States in international competitions, and Michael was as prepared as could be for his national team debut. It hasn't hurt that this is the first American men's team that is younger than the women's.

Malchow was the only teen-ager on the men's team in 1996. This year, there are no fewer than eight. Like Phelps, Peirsol and Ian Crocker qualified before they got to college.

Phelps is just one of the guys who waits to take a turn on fellow Baltimorean Tommy Hannan's Nintendo 64.

"In terms of interaction, it seems like he's with the kids back home at Meadowbrook," Bowman said of the Mount Washington facility that serves as the NBAC's home.

"Before they elected captains, the coaches asked everyone what are the qualities they want in that person. No one said anything. Michael was the first one to speak, and said `Leadership, I guess.' The place cracked up."

The swim competition starts Saturday, the day after the opening ceremonies. Phelps is among athletes who must pass on the parade to rest their legs. It is among the details that must be seen to in the care and feeding of a world-class athlete.

He has been a sponge, soaking up experiences and following Bowman's lead.

"Michael was trying to figure out what kind of Olympic ring to order, silver or gold," Debbie Phelps said. "Bob [Bowman] told him there is only one type of ring to order."

Phelps went for the gold.

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