His head's way above water

The Baltimore Sun

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA -- Gracious athletes, even the great ones, always say that world records are meant to be broken.

But it is simply hard to fathom that anyone foresaw a day when someone like Michael Phelps would come along and break them the way he is doing it now: night after night after night.

Phelps, with his performance this week at the FINA World Championships, has ascended into a stratosphere previously unimagined in the swimming world. Gold medals, like the six he won at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, are no longer the standard.

Instead, in some respects, it is about destroying conventional wisdom about what we thought the human body could achieve. And about solidifying his position as one of the greatest athletes of all time, not just in swimming.

"There is nobody else. Michael, right now, stands by himself," said Jon Urbanchek, an assistant coach for the United States. "He's more like Michael Jordan. He's way out there."

In the first six days of the world championships, Phelps has won six gold medals and set four world records.

This morning, he'll swim the 400-meter individual medley, an event in which he holds the world record. He was scheduled to swim the butterfly for the United States in the finals of the 400-meter medley relay, but the U.S. was disqualified in the preliminaries when Ian Crocker, who was swimming in Phelps' place, left the starting blocks early. That mistake cost Phelps a chance to win eight gold medals.

American Mark Spitz set the record with seven gold medals at the 1972 Summer Olympics.

Phelps has electrified the crowd in Rod Laver Arena - most of whom paid nearly $200 for a ticket each night - and earned banner headlines each day.

Announcers refer to him as Superman, and each time he dives into the pool, they declare with gusto that "World records are under siege!"

He has captivated Australians who revere the sport and those who, before the championship, were reluctant to concede that Phelps had surpassed their champion, Ian Thorpe, as the greatest of all time.

"I love Ian Thorpe. I do," said 20-year-old Amy Wakely of Melbourne, who scored a last-minute ticket to see Phelps on Friday, when he helped the Americans break the 4 x 200 freestyle relay world record. "But Michael is just an all-around better swimmer. He's just amazing. It's not, 'What is Michael Phelps swimming in?' It's, 'What is Michael Phelps not swimming in?' He could do the 200-meter relay, like, by himself. He's winning everything."

In a way, the 21-year-old Phelps' accomplishments may be more appreciated and more revered around the world than they are in the United States, where the sporting world is focused this week on the NCAA Final Four, and anticipating golf's first major, The Masters.

In Australia, the world championships are broadcast live every night. Aussie swimmers like Thorpe are regulars in the Australian gossip magazines the way American celebrities are splashed across the pages of US Weekly and People.

Paparazzi photos of retired long-distance swimmer Kieren Perkins and his wife also routinely make the pages of the gossip magazines, Aussies say. With so much of the Australian population living near the coasts, Aussie children learn to swim early. Growing up, they join swim clubs the way American children play Little League baseball and European youngsters play soccer.

"It's very important for Australians to win in swimming because it's one of the few things we're good at," said Elizabeth Taylor, 27, of Melbourne. "Anything having to do with swimming is big news here."

Randy Walker, 42, an Atlanta native, has lived for the last decade in Singapore, where he works for IBM. He was in town for business and decided to stay longer, just to see Phelps swim.

"This is history. How often do you get to sit on the sidelines of history?" Walker said. "He's having a meet no one else has had. ... The question now will be whether he'll be known as one of the greatest athletes in all sports - among the Tigers [Woods] and the [Roger] Federers. He's moving toward that stature. And to have a swimmer in the U.S. talked about in the same breath as those athletes, it really says something."

Walker said it is a shame that the time difference between Australia and the United States prevents Americans from watching the world championships on television. "I think [Phelps] is bigger here than he is in the States just because everyone here is seeing it," he said.

Even in Japan, where the world championships are broadcast on a two-hour tape delay, Phelps has achieved rock-star status. "People in Japan call him 'The Monster,'" said Kyoko Yamagish, a producer for Japanese television. "Ian Thorpe was huge, but Phelps has surpassed him. We show all his races."

It's impossible not to ask whether Phelps might be peaking too early. As important as the world championships are, the Beijing Olympics are far more important in the eyes of swimmers and the world.

But Phelps' coach Bob Bowman does not see it like that.

"He's in a place now where he could be some percentage off at the Olympics and still be successful," Bowman said. I like that a lot. It just gives us a little insurance. If he was behind in the game, then you'd have to build it up and go somewhere you haven't been. So now we can work on fine-tuning and maintaining some stuff, and that's usually easier than getting there the first time."

Phelps' performance has not only changed his expectations for Beijing, but it has also changed his competitors' expectations . Pieter Van Den Hoogenband is the two-time Olympic gold medal winner in the 100-meter freestyle, as well as the world record holder, and he won a silver medal in Athens in the 200-meter freestyle.

But after Phelps beat Van Den Hoogenband on Monday in the 200 freestyle, breaking Thorpe's six-year-old world record in the process, Van Den Hoogenband admitted he felt as though he is no longer in Phelps' league. He even hinted that he might be done with the 200.

"I have to be realistic. I've raced Ian many times. He was a fantastic competitor. But 1:43.8?" Van Den Hoogenband said, referring to Phelps' winning time. "I was next to him. I know how fast that is. Ian and I were the only two who were swimming 1:44. Michael went from 1:45 straight to 1:43. I don't think in 18 months' time, I can make that big of a step. So you have to be honest and realistic when you pick your races."

Bowman said that Phelps is a different athlete, right now, both physically and emotionally than when he first burst onto the scene six years ago.

"They show a video here every night of him winning in Fukoka [at the 2001 World Championships]," Bowman said. "Michael watched before he swam last night and he said, 'What was I, like 12?' It looks like he's 12. Now he looks like a man. He's much more of a man."

Did Phelps expect this to happen this week?

"With how I broke the world records, I couldn't have imagined it," Phelps said. "Being able to do three best times in my individual events by a second or more. ... that's sort of like a 12-year-old dream."

kevin.vanvalkenburg@ baltsun.com

jennifer.mcmenamin@ baltsun.com

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