Bigger, vastly improved version of Phelps takes encore in Sydney


SYDNEY, Australia -- Like Michael Phelps, Olympic Park has changed.

Three years and a month ago, the train station here handled hundreds of thousands of passengers a day during the summer games. Most were headed to Olympic Stadium, the track and field venue that has been renamed Telstra Stadium.

Last Saturday, 82,000 were there for the final in rugby's World Cup. Two days later, the pubs were still hearing chants celebrating Jonny Wilkinson, the star of England's title-game win over Australia.

A quarter-mile to the south, the Sydney International Aquatic Center has dropped the second word in its title and some 10,000 seats, lowering the capacity to 7,500.

Though it has been scaled down to a family-oriented recreation spot, tomorrow the center will play host to the return of a famous foreign visitor, one who has grown up and out.

In 2000, Phelps was a 15-year-old curio item at the Olympics. When he trained here last May, he received more notice, but in the interim he has thrown a serious scare into the status of local hero Ian Thorpe, formerly known as the undisputed best swimmer on the planet.

They are the two main drawing cards for the Qantas Skins, which will be conducted at the aquatic center tomorrow night. Phelps, Thorpe and a supporting cast of hundreds will then move down the coast to Melbourne, Australia's other Olympic city, for a FINA World Cup meet Friday through Sunday.

"It's going to be exciting to race here again," Phelps said last night. "Coming back to where it all started, it's going to be a little different."

In 2000, Phelps was a skinny 165-pounder who stormed his way to a fifth-place finish in the Olympic 200-meter butterfly. Now he goes closer to 200 pounds, but he's floating along on the crest of one of the greatest non-Olympic years ever.

Three camera crews greeted him at the airport last night. After Melbourne, Phelps will spend a week in Manly, the origin of an erroneous rumor that he will make that picturesque Sydney suburb his second home. His fame in this water-obsessed land is understandable.

Phelps last raced in August in College Park, when he wrapped up the Summer Nationals with his third world-record performance of the year in the 200 individual medley. It was his seventh world-record swim in 41 days, the core of that virtuoso run being an unprecedented five world records at July's world championships in Barcelona.

For his next trick, Phelps will attempt to become the first person to win two events at the Qantas Skins, which is patterned after the big-name event that inspired golf's silly season.

The event -- offering $125,000 Australian (about $90,000 American) in prize money this year -- was first held in 1996.

The butterfly, which includes Olympic bronze medalist Geoff Huegill, consists of a series of elimination races.

The middle-distance freestyle will consist of four races, with the winner being determined by cumulative time. In that, he'll be challenged by Grant Hackett, the second-most famous swimmer in Australia.

The reigning Olympic champ in the 1,500 freestyle, Hackett played host to Phelps in May, when Thorpe reneged on his open invitation to Phelps to come Down Under to train.

While Phelps spent last week working out and doing research and development in New Zealand, Thorpe was in the States, doing altitude training in Flagstaff, Ariz. He's cutting it close, as he won't arrive in town until tomorrow morning.

Thorpe is entered in the freestyle sprint. Ticket sales weren't helped by the two avoiding each other, although they will go head-to-head on the anchor leg of a mixed-medley relay that was added to the program yesterday.

Phelps was the only swimmer invited to enter two events in the Qantas Skins. He'll be just as busy in Melbourne, where he'll swim two events each day, starting with the 200 butterfly and 100 IM Friday.

"From a coaching standpoint, it's been a hard 12 weeks; pretty vigorous stuff," said Bob Bowman, Phelps' boss at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. "In some ways, this is the starting point, but doing good training doesn't always translate into good performance after a long layoff."

Of the 12 American swimmers competing here, five are from the NBAC.

Kevin Clements, the second-fastest American ever in the 200 IM, and Marianne Limpert, attempting to become the first Canadian woman to swim in four Olympics, are entered in the "Mystery Medleys."

National champion Emily Goetsch is in the women's butterfly, and Loyola College grad Jamie Barone made the field for the breaststroke. Amanda Beard and Lindsay Benko head the rest of the U.S. contingent.

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