Local swimmer, 15, headed for Olympics

THE BALTIMORE SUN

INDIANAPOLIS - "Little Phelps" has made a big splash in the swimming world.

Michael Phelps was given that nickname as a young boy, by a friend of one of his sisters. He's only 15, so it remains appropriate, but perhaps he can shed it now that he's an Olympian.

Phelps finished second in the 200-meter butterfly at the U.S. trials for the Olympic Games last night. He will miss the start of his sophomore year at Towson High School because he'll be in Sydney, Australia, next month, competing in front of 17,000 swimming-obsessed Australians and a worldwide television audience.

Phelps might not be a medal contender Down Under, but he is still a major story. He is the youngest member of the U.S. men's swim team since 1932.

Phelps, who celebrated his birthday June 30, doesn't even have his learner's permit for a driver's license. There was only one other teen-ager in the eight-man final at the Indiana University Natatorium. An appreciative crowd of 4,500, mostly family and friends of the competitors, began to notice Phelps Friday, when he turned in impressive performances in the first two rounds of the 200 butterfly. Fans are accustomed to seeing 15-year-old girls win gold at the Olympics, but male swimmers typically mature later.

Timonium's Beth Botsford was 15 when she won a gold medal four years ago. Towson's Anita Nall turned 16 during the 1992 Olympics, when she also took gold. Both competed under the banner of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, which has also been instrumental in Phelps' development.

His older sisters, Hillary and Whitney, logged many miles at the Meadowbrook Swim Club in Mount Washington, where coach Murray Stephens' network of pools is based. Phelps' routine has included workouts there for more than half his life, as he joined the NBAC and began to swim competitively at age 7.

"I guess I got my discipline from my sisters, usually Whitney," Phelps said earlier this summer. "Whitney was on national teams, and I can remember before the crack of dawn her going to practice. I would always hear the door shutting and the car starting for her to go practice."

Bob Bowman was hired by Stephens in 1996 to train some of the NBAC's elite swimmers. A year later, Bowman predicted big things for Michael to his mother.

"It's amazing what coaches can see," Deborah Phelps said. "Bob sat me down and told me what he projected for Michael. He said that in 2004, he would definitely be a factor in the Olympics. He also said that he could be there in 2000, to watch out for him. At the time, he was only 11."

Phelps had already begun to set some of what would become dozens of national age-group records. He was also cognizant of the pressure that comes with the U.S. trials' format, in which only the top two finishers go to the Olympics.

Michael has had to handle a pretty heady reputation, because he started setting state and national records five years ago.

Some of the little kids who skateboard and play around the sunny corner near the Phelps rowhouse in Rodgers Forge become wide-eyed and breathless when Michael Phelps' name is mentioned.

But even though he has exceeded every great expectation in the water since he was 10 years old, according to school mates, coaches and friends, the recognition has never bloated his ego.

"Of course, everybody in school knows him," said Caroline O'Shea, a neighbor and 10th-grader at Towson High School, who has been in school with Michael since fifth grade. "But it's not because of the swimming thing. He's just really nice."

And he's funny enough that some of his adolescent antics in the water send his teammates into hysterics.

And he's so cute that girls squirm a little when they talk about him.

And he's so ordinary and innocent that the Meadowbrook manager John Cadigan doesn't hesitate to describe him as "a run-of-the-mill goofy high school sophomore."

Among his teammates, Michael has always been the one to watch.

"Everybody always knew Michael was a special swimmer," said 17-year-old teammate Jordan Sibler. "He had talent. All you had to do was get out of his way."

In 1996, his sister Whitney was a favorite in the women's 200 butterfly, the same event in which he excels, but did not make the Olympic team. Michael was in attendance at the trials.

"That left a scar on our family," Michael said.

Now a junior at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, Whitney's career has been halted by a painful back condition. Hillary, the oldest sister, was a scholarship swimmer at the University of Richmond.

Even when he started to shine, though, his older sisters' achievements overshadowed his.

Maybe one reason Michael has turned out to be such a normal, happy-go-lucky boy, they surmise, is that the more intense expectations fell on the girls. The challenges they faced - and the disappointments - have left Michael to be his own man.

"When Michael broke his first record, his sister Whitney was the big thing," said his former coach Tom Himes. "I think he really benefited from that."

Consequently, neither his teammates nor his classmates have ever heard him talk much about the Olympics. If it's been the central focus of Michael's life, he hasn't shown it. If he's on the verge of immense success, his friends believe, he's not likely to let it go to his head.

"He's very relaxed, very down to earth," said Gerry Brewster, who taught Michael's ninth-grade honors government class and is a former Maryland delegate. "No pretense or airs. No arrogance. As humble and nice a guy you could hope to meet."

While his sisters specialized in swimming, Michael played a variety of sports, and one busy spring was ferried from Meadowbrook to the Kelly Post lacrosse fields to the baseball diamonds at the Lutherville-Timonium Recreation Council.

Michael began demanding double sessions - practices in the morning and afternoon - last fall. He still couldn't understand why the demands of being a world-class athlete left him no time to try out for some fall sports teams at Towson High.

"One of his friends made the varsity football team, and he was very impressed," Deborah Phelps said. "He said 'Maybe I can go out for the golf team.' All of his friends were trying out for teams. I had to remind him to look at the big picture."

His mother is divorced from Fred Phelps, Michael's father. Both traveled here to cheer on their son, who has grown to 6-foot-2 and 165 pounds. His parents met as high school students in Allegany County, where Deborah was a cheerleader and Fred was a multisport athlete. He played college football at Fairmont State in West Virginia.

Michael thinks of himself as just another neighborhood kid, but over the Memorial Day weekend he was at an international competition in Michigan, though still preparing for exams in American Government and Algebra II.

But again, the very adult intensity he displays in the water becomes basic teen behavior when he's out.

When the team handed out honors recently, Michael was named not as best swimmer or most dedicated, but as "biggest eater."

His pals say this is pretty typical of their fun-loving friend. "From the way he acts, you wouldn't think he's this huge swimmer," said one of his friends, Paul Wienecke, a 14-year-old sophomore at Towson.

Beyond becoming a great swimmer, Wienecke said, the only two ambitions he knew Michael has are "to go to college and be a nice guy."

Sun staff writer Larry Carson contributed to this article.

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