Michael Phelps leaned forward and recalled how he had narrowed the focus of his athletic pursuits. Talent, drive and some expert coaching have produced incredibly fast swim times, but before his days of double training sessions, there was a spring when Phelps raced from the pool to the baseball diamond to the lacrosse field.
"It wasn't really that hard," Phelps said. "You have all kinds of energy when you're little."
Did we mention that Phelps is 14 years old?
He completed the ninth grade at Towson High last week. In August, the goal is to become the youngest male swimmer to represent the United States at the Olympics in at least 40 years.
Phelps told his mother that he wants his photo to hang next to those of Anita Nall and Beth Botsford, who used the North Baltimore Aquatic Club as a base en route to winning gold medals in 1992 and '96, respectively.
Nall won in Barcelona a week after her 16th birthday. Botsford was 15 when she marched through Atlanta. Girls routinely go to the Olympics, but boys don't. No American male swimmer under 17 has represented the United States in the Games since 1976. USA Swimming officials could not recall any male Olympian under 16, but their research went back only to 1964.
Phelps will turn 15 a week from today. At the Phillips 66 U.S. National Championships in March, he turned in a breakthrough clocking of 1:59.02 in the 200-meter butterfly that remains the second fastest by an American this year. Tom Malchow, the silver medalist in 1996, is the national leader, and Phelps is among the candidates to claim the second U.S. Olympic berth.
Given that his sister, Whitney, was a favorite who fell short of qualifying in 1996, Michael treads lightly when the subjects are swimming history and the Olympics and Sydney, Australia. Bob Bowman, his coach, would prefer that the topics be taboo. He focuses not on the product but the process, and that suits Michael just fine.
In sisters' wake
Whitney Phelps is entering her junior year at UNLV. Big sister Hillary just completed her undergraduate studies at Richmond and is considering law school. Much of their discipline was acquired during workouts at the Meadowbrook Swim Club, the complex in Mount Washington where Murray Stephens and his staff have built the NBAC into one of the nation's premier clubs.
Michael's recent times are something of a revelation, because while his potential was always noted, he only began swimming double sessions in earnest earlier this year. He has, however, long been familiar with the rhythm of morning workouts. At 5 a.m., he would be awakened by the close of the front door. The engine on the van would turn over. One of his sisters would be ferried to a 5:30 a.m. workout, and he would turn over and go back to sleep.
"I remember taking him out of his crib in a blanket sleeper to take him with the girls to a meet at UMBC," Deborah Phelps said. "I changed him in the back of the van before we went into that meet."
Deborah is divorced from Fred Phelps, an all-around athlete who played football at Fairmont (W. Va.) State. They lived in Whiteford, near the Pennsylvania state line, when their pediatrician suggested swimming as a healthy endeavor for their children. While Hillary, and then Whitney, competed, Michael would work the family picnic tables, mooching from all.
Hillary and Whitney increased their commitment when they joined the NBAC in 1988, and it's the only club Michael has known. All three Phelps children found the butterfly to be their best stroke.
"I think it's a coincidence that all three were good in the butterfly," said Tom Himes, the age-group coach who came to the NBAC in 1985, the year Michael was born. "Michael got into swimming because his sisters were. He had a lot of natural talent, but he didn't show it as quickly as his sisters. He was one of those kids who wanted to play other sports."
In the hectic spring of 1996, when Michael was in the fifth grade, he played lacrosse for Kelly Post, baseball for the Timonium Rec Council and swam. He was wistful last fall when a friend and classmate made the varsity football team at Towson High, but then he began to turn in some of the world-class performances he was accustomed to observing.
In 1994, Whitney swam at the Pan Pacific Championships and Michael tagged along to Atlanta as a spectator. After Eric Wunderlich took one of the breaststroke events, he autographed his cap and tossed it into the stands. Whitney's boyfriend at the time caught it, and gave it to Michael. He still has it.
Whitney Phelps expected to return to Atlanta two years later, for the Olympics. She was the fastest American in the 200 fly coming into the U.S. trials, but faltered and finished sixth.
"It was very devastating," Deborah Phelps said. "Whitney was told she was a shoo-in. I had Hillary on one side and Michael on the other, and we were all crying. I remember Murray stating that the 'Olympics are just another meet.' I thought the man was nuts. Now, I understand what he meant."
Despite a chronic back injury that forced long periods of inactivity on her, Whitney has come back and posted times that again qualified her for the U.S. trials. In two months she'll try to race in Indianapolis, and shield her brother from the pressures there.
"If I go to the trials and do good, I do good," Michael said. "If I don't, I know what I'm going to have to work on the next four years."
Michael is probably years from peaking, and his precocity sometimes goes unnoticed. When the USA Swimming World Cup was conducted at the University of Maryland last November, top freestyle swimmer Sabir Muhammad stayed with the Phelpses in Rodgers Forge.
"He wanted to know," Michael said, "if I could drive us to practice."
There were many mornings when Michael logged three miles at Meadowbrook before he got to Towson High, but he is still building the base that is a given in the men he's challenging. Bowman, however, is a nationally-recognized stroke technician, and in Phelps he has a rare pupil.
"He's huge for a kid who's only 15," said Tom Dolan, who as the Olympic champion in the 400 individual medley is recognized as the world's best all-around swimmer. "He's a lot stronger than most 15-year olds. He's obviously way ahead of the curve right now."
Phelps is close to 6 feet 2 and weighs 165 pounds. With wavy brown locks tucked under a Michigan baseball cap, he talked about chasing Malchow, 23, and passing men he used to badger for autographs.
The NBAC Long Course Championships will attract more than 700 swimmers to Meadowbrook this weekend. On Monday evening, Michael will swim the 1,500, one of the few events in which he doesn't hold the national 13-14 age group record. Like the song said, Phelps is half a boy and half a man.
Michael was 7 or 8 when someone at the pool called him "Little Phelps." The nickname stuck, but it seemed dated when Whitney came home from college last Christmas.
"I couldn't believe how much he shot up last year," Whitney said. "He's not little anymore."
The Phelps file
Name: Michael Phelps
Height: 6 feet 2
Weight: 165 pounds
Home: Rodgers Forge
Club: North Baltimore Aquatic Club
High school: Towson
Skinny: Phelps was third in the 200-meter butterfly at the Phillips 66 U.S. National Championships in March. His time of 1:59.02 is the second fastest by an American this year.