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Can Phelps become the new Tiger Woods?

It's only the second day of the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, and already, Michael Phelps has done something off-the-charts ridiculous. Last night he and his good friend Ryan Lochte engaged in a showdown that, at least for now, might go down as the best race in the history of swimming. That may sound like hyperbole, especially considering the race happened at the U.S. trials instead of the Olympics, but when you consider just how close it was over 400 meters (neither Phelps nor Lochte ever led by more than a half a body length, despite swimming four different stroke disciplines) and how fast each swimmer went (both went under the old world record) it's hard to come to any other conclusion.

Throw in the fact that the race was broadcast live on NBC, on Sunday night in prime time no less, and you can imagine there are a lot of corporate executives at 30 Rockefeller Plaza who are exchanging awkward, yet enthusiastic high fives this morning. The gamble NBC took in putting the U.S. trials on late-night television has, in some respects, already paid off. Anything Phelps does this week -- and it looks like he could have another record-setting week -- will only enhance his legend before the network cranks up its hype machine and gears up for the Beijing Olympics in August.

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Although the impact is certainly not quite on the same scale, Phelps clearly has the Tiger Woods affect on the sport of swimming. He brings fresh eyeballs to the sport, the kind that otherwise could not be bothered to so much as change the channel to watch swimming. And when those fresh eyeballs do happen to show up, he rarely, if ever, disappoints. That translates into additional dollars and increased popularity. Phelps' race against Lochte last night was kind of like Rocco Mediate staring down Woods at this year's U.S. Open (although in terms of talent, Lochte is more like Sergio Garcia or Phil Mickelson). Lochte pushed Phelps in a way he's never really been pushed before, and probably should have come out on top. Phelps hadn't come within several seconds of his own world record in the 400 IM in more than a year. At the Missouri Grand Prix earlier this year, I watched he and Katie Hoff make a bet as to who could come closer to their world record in that event. Phelps went 4:13, still won easily, and was visibly annoyed as he left the pool. It reminded of me of Woods shooting 69 and stomping off the driving rage to work on his swing.

Woods' name comes up often in the swim community when people talk about Phelps. Natalie Coughlin, Katie Hoff, and Brendan Hansen all invoked the comparison this week. Matt Lauer mentioned it on the Today Show, and ESPN.com columnist Pat Forde also made the connection, arguing that in Woods' absence -- as the world's best golfer rehabs from knee surgery -- Phelps might be able to fill the void for the American sporting public.

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The comparison still seems like a stretch for some, especially those who only bother to follow an Olympics sport like swimming once every four years. But what I find interesting about the comparison is that the parallels extend beyond just popularity. Like Woods, Phelps has an uncanny ability to stay calm under pressure. Other swimmers walk out of the warm-up pool with three thousand thoughts bouncing around inside their head. Phelps is able to simply slow everything down and wipe his mind clean.

"It's always fun to see Michael really dig down and just focus under the pressure of events like this," said Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach, after last night's 400 IM. "I think that's his best attribute. It's always fun to see that."

In addition, the physical transformation that Woods has helped golf undergo is analogous to the one Phelps helped revolutionize in swimming. There has been constant media chatter -- some of it so constant, it's almost absurd -- about the Speedo LZR swimsuits over the last six months and whether they're tantamount to technological doping. Why else are all these world records falling, the media keeps asking.

What that overlooks, in part, is the evolution of swimmers' bodies. Michael Phelps has an enormous wingspan, huge hands and feet, double joints, and almost no rear end. In the water, he's shaped like a rowing scull. Swimmers simply weren't shaped that way 15 and 20 years ago, the way that golfers didn't have 14-inch biceps and a six pack like Tiger Woods. When you combine that with the science of modern training, both in the weight room and at the dinner table, what you're seeing is new frontiers of sport.

It's interesting too the way Phelps has shaped his public persona in a similar manner to Woods. Both athletes are guarded about their personal lives, and choose their words carefully with every news conference. He's not boring, he's just never controversial. I listened yesterday for an hour as Olympic swimmer Gary Hall held court with a throng of media, offering controversial and candid opinions on everything from drug use and drug testing to why politics shouldn't be a part of the Olympics.

In 100 years, I can never imagine Phelps speaking that candidly. That's not a knock on Phelps, it's just a reality. He has sponsorships to protect and an entire sport to promote. He and his advisers -- much like Woods -- have clearly decided that it's not in his best interests to rock the boat. That may frustrate swimmers like Hall, who would clearly like Phelps to speak his mind more often, but it's simply not Phelps' style.

Woods brought golf the the masses, at least for awhile, igniting interest outside the country club set, and it's possibly we're seeing some of that with Phelps as well. Swimming in the United States may never reach the heights that is has in Australia, where athletes like Ian Thorpe, Grant Hackett, Libby Lenton, and Leisel Jones are national celebrities who regularly show up in the tabloids that are Australia's equivalent of US Weekly. (Thorpe's sexuality is a matter of constant debate in his home country; every few months he politely denies rumors that he's gay.) But swimming may rise above the level of fringe sports thanks to Phelps.

After his Olympic performance four years ago, he popped up on MTV's Total Request Live and made multiple appearances on the Tonight Show. When he won seven gold medals at the FINA World Championships last year in Australia, his feat was the subject of nightly debate on ESPN's SportsCenter and Pardon the Interruption, despite the fact that there was no television coverage of the event. As the Olympics approach, Americans will see more commercials of Phelps than they will of Woods. Like it or not, he'll be a fixture in the homes of anyone who watches NBC and doesn't have a DVR (to zip through the ads).

Most baffling of all, Phelps just turned 23. Today is his birthday.

Despite all that's already happened to enhance his legend, we may be closer to the beginning than we are the end.

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AP photo

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