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Waters of fame rising for Phelps

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Michael Phelps' list of things to do ranges from the mundane to the magnificent.

Pick up coffee for the front office at Towson High.

Indulge the international swimming officials who popped into the Meadowbrook Aquatics Center and supply a drug-testing sample, his ninth in two weeks.

Consume calories every waking moment at home in Rodgers Forge.

Become the best swimmer in the world.

Ever.

Last week, Phelps said: "I think it would be unbelievable to be the best swimmer in the world," but pool immortality and mention alongside the likes of Johnny Weissmuller - aka Tarzan - Mark Spitz and contemporary Ian Thorpe are quite feasible for a 17-year-old for whom normal limits were discarded long ago, like, when he was in the sixth grade.

He's just past the midway point between the closing of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, and the opening of the 2004 games in Athens, Greece. It's time to take stock of Phelps, a professional whose progress is alternately fascinating and predictable.

On his first stroll through the Olympics, Phelps played with house money. He traveled Down Under as a 15-year-old unburdened by expectations, the youngest male swimmer from the United States at the games since 1932. The next Olympics will play out in Europe, with a timetable more conducive to American television and hype. Come summer 2004, you might see Phelps' image, oh, about every 2.3 seconds.

His coach, his management team and Phelps himself are as calculating as ever about his goals, but they no longer cloak them in coyness. This is not the time to talk - or plan - small, because, barring injury, Phelps will provide half of what is expected to be one of the biggest story lines in Athens.

The two best swimmers in the world are 6-foot-4 teenagers with large lungs, wingspans and feet, but there is room in the Olympic pool for both. Thorpe is the dominant freestyler, Phelps the best all-around.

They won't compete head to head as much as in the medal count - and against the standard Spitz set in Munich in 1972, when he won gold in four individual events and three relays, the biggest haul ever for an Olympic athlete.

Phelps will likely compete in the 100 and 200 butterfly events, the 200 and 400 individual medleys and at least two of the three relays.

It's conceivable Thorpe and Phelps could combine to win seven of the 13 individual men's events at the Olympics. Thorpe, 19, won three gold medals and two silver in his hometown of Sydney two years ago. He's the world-record holder in the 200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyles, but the longer event isn't on the Olympic program.

Thorpe is aiming at the 100 freestyle mark, and he needs it, because Phelps figures to hold four individual world records himself very soon.

Already the youngest man ever to hold a world record, having twice lowered the 200 butterfly mark in 2001, Phelps added a second on Aug. 15, when he improved the 400 individual medley standard to 4 minutes, 11.09 seconds at the U.S. Summer Nationals.

The event tests a swimmer's proficiency in the butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle, and Phelps' form is still improving in all four.

During that same meet in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Phelps posted the second-fastest times ever in the 200 IM and 100 fly, and is minor improvements away from owning those marks.

The last man to hold four American records simultaneously was Spitz, in June 1975. That was almost three years after Munich, where Spitz had a hand in world records in all seven of his golds. Phelps' world record in the 200 fly is more than five seconds faster than Spitz's, but times aren't as important as medal shade at the Olympics.

"Our goal is to get Michael fast enough in the next year that, going into Athens, he can kind of transcend everyone's concept of what is fast," said Bob Bowman, his coach at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club.

"I want him to be in that ballpark because then he doesn't have to be 100 percent perfect to win gold medals. You don't want to be in a situation where everything has to be right."

There are factors to consider and factions to massage. Swimming and Olympic broadcaster NBC need stars. Just as track and field adjusted schedules to enable sprint star Michael Johnson to run both the 200 and 400 meters in Atlanta in 1996, the network will be consulted when FINA, swimming's international governing body, and the International Olympic Committee finalize the Athens timetable.

"I do know that part of the process is that NBC will get the final say," said Bowman, who was one of the U.S. coaches for the Pan Pacific championships and presumably will be on the American Olympic staff. "I can't imagine that they wouldn't want to have a situation where his [Phelps] events will line up well."

Phelps' precocity and propensity for clutch performances have won over American coaches who have been around swimming since the 1950s. While reigning Olympic champions Tom Malchow (200 fly) and Tom Dolan (400 IM) fight to hold on to their crowns, the larger swim community figures to embrace his medal chase. The relays count as much as individual events and seem to stoke Phelps' competitive streak even more.

After Malchow beat him in the 200 fly at the Pan Pacifics in Yokohama, Japan, on Aug. 27, Phelps had to get back in the pool for the 800 relay. Bowman overheard a Canadian pep talk about Phelps' being done for the day, and passed it along. The United States didn't win, but the best 200 freestyle of Phelps' career left the Australians trailing in the event for the first time in six years.

"I have a tendency when I'm down, I continue to be down," Phelps said. "When Bob said, 'The Canadians said you're going to roll over in the 800 relay,' that was a little motivation. I let my actions speak louder than words. We ended up beating them by eight seconds."

The best performance at the Pan Pacifics might have been the split Phelps posted in the 100 fly leg in the medley relay, where he gained a share of his third world record (relay mark). The world mark in the 100 fly is 51.81, and Phelps touched in 51.13, a full second faster than he expected to go this summer.

Not yet an American idol, the son of an educator and a state trooper is learning to play to the crowd. Debbie Phelps, an administrator with the Baltimore County Public Schools, went to the Pan Pacifics to see her son in an international meet for the first time since the 2000 Olympics. He continued his habit of giving his medal ceremony bouquets to her, but when she ran out of space in her room, Phelps took to throwing his flowers into the crowd.

During a three-hour day at Towson High, Phelps takes English and economics. He'll probably take a course or two at a local college during the next school year, to combat boredom and keep his mind off his quest.

Phelps has been around the world a couple of times now. He's comfortable not just training with collegians, but also hanging with them, and Bowman doesn't have to nag him as much about packing the proper fuel and equipment.

One night in Japan, the last bus from the pool to the athletes' hotel carried a few officials and two athletes: Phelps and Thorpe. They talked about training - Phelps averaged about 43 miles a week over the past year - and how Thorpe is mobbed by Japanese fans. Two months ago, the Thorpe camp talked about his going for nine golds in Greece, but the latest rumor has him narrowing his focus and shifting his training base to Monaco.

"He told me that I'm welcome to come train with him whenever I want," Phelps said. "That would be pretty cool. I was like, 'You can come to Baltimore and train with us if you want.' "

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