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As Phelps heats up, dog days on hold

COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK - Michael Phelps has a to-do list. Typical teenage stuff, like deciding whether to enroll in college next week. He's leaning toward waiting a year. He's already got something white-hot cooking on the front burner.

Like the Olympics next summer, when Phelps, 18, figures to have a good chance at becoming king of Athens.

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Then there's the puppy. Phelps wants one. He grins ear to ear thinking about it. His mother promised if he did well at the world championships in Barcelona, he could get one.

"My friend and I went into a pet store at the mall. There was the cutest lab. It was about this big," said Phelps, scrunching his long fingers into the shape of a mini football.

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The puppy, like classes at Loyola College near his Towson home, might have to wait, too. Too much work. Too much risk for distraction. Besides, not even a water dog like the yellow lab he's eyeing can keep up with this big dog.

Last month at the world championships, Phelps set five world records. More than the records, Phelps served notice that the countdown to the Olympics - his Olympics - has officially begun.

Now that he's back home, driving around in his Escalade, the Wunderkind of chlorinated water finds himself with another opportunity at hand. It's almost providential, the way it worked out. Phelps is in peak form after the world championships, and here are the Summer Nationals taking place at the University of Maryland this week.

Bob Bowman, his coach at North Baltimore Aquatic Club, says he wants to use the nationals to gauge where Phelps is mentally and physically after the grueling worlds, where Phelps swam 13 events.

But with a twinkle in his eyes, Phelps gave the distinct impression yesterday after his warm-ups that these nationals are no training experiment, nor a walk in the park.

"The buzz around here is that he's going to set a world record in the 200-meter backstroke," said John Collins, the New York-based coach who trains Olympian Jenny Thompson.

Indeed, a sixth world record in less than three weeks appears to be on the docket for Phelps. He'll swim the 200 backstroke and the 100 freestyle today, with finals this evening in College Park.

"If everything goes well, I want to have the fastest time in the world. I'm second [in the 200 backstroke] right now. I wouldn't mind being No. 1," Phelps said.

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The world record is 1 minute, 55.15 seconds, held by Aaron Peirsol. Phelps would have to knock almost two seconds off his personal best time of 1:57.04, but then again, why not? He erased that kind of time off the new world marks he etched in Barcelona.

If there was ever a time to get in the car or get on the train and find yourself at a swim meet, today is the day. Barcelona is done. Athens is a year away - with Phelps not about to approach this level of fitness and preparedness until then.

There is also talk that he will attempt to lower his world mark in the 200 individual medley Saturday. And when Phelps sets his mind on something, he tends to deliver.

"I think there's more pressure on me now than there was [in Barcelona.] But I like pressure on me," he said.

It's not generally easy to wrap our sporting passion around swimming. It's underwater, for one thing. It has no ball involved, no homers or touchdowns. However, for anyone who tuned into ESPN2's coverage of the world championships, it did not take the screaming voice of analyst Rowdy Gaines to get an idea that something incredible was happening in Barcelona. Phelps' speed was mind-boggling.

Phelps cut through the water as if his mission was not to win, but to redefine the concept of fast. It is stirring what this young man can do.

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"He's like a little bit of magic. Every time he swims you start to believe he's going to do something special," Collins said.

"Athletes like Jenny [Thompson] and Michael like to race. They step up to the game. Athletes like they are, this is what they're supposed to do. They're not just out there to swim, they explode. This is their meet. It's a performance like an actor on Broadway, just like a racehorse," he said, adding: "Michael is like that. He looks unstoppable."

Yesterday, with five world records in his pocket, Phelps said he felt no different.

"I walk into the pool and things run through my mind; what I have to do here to get into that zone," he said.

Somehow, he achieves that zone while coming off as the boy next door. Phelps was as genuine, as comfortable, as "normal" as ever. He stopped and chatted with everyone. He goofed on TV reporters who had a list of prepared questions. He endured the crowded lanes during warm-ups as if he were just a regular swimmer, even though everyone nodded at him, noticed him on the pool deck and in the water.

For a recent high school grad whose free time is spent looking for a new puppy, Phelps is a rare mix of competitive fire, poise and disarmingly innocent charm. This is all still so much fun.

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Maybe this is why he just keeps getting better. He's only starting to put it together, to apply the polish. Talk about exciting.

"Michael is at a place where he's just exploring where he is in this sport. It's not about records or how many medals he can win. It's about who he is and what he can do. Maybe it's nine golds, maybe it's one, maybe it's none. There's a lot of upside," Bowman said.

And if we're smart, we'll all watch every tenth of a second as he reaches for that rare, special place.


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