Just keep going

The Baltimore Sun

BEIJING - One morning last week, Michael Phelps and his coach had just finished breakfast. They typically avoided talk of swimming on such mornings, usually preferring to chat about basketball or some other topic that might help keep Phelps loose.

A date with destiny loomed at the Water Cube, and the pair went to the shuttle stop at the Olympic Village - only to find a shuttle bus pulling away. Bowman wasted no time. The bus would have to pull U-turn and drive past them, so Bowman prodded the best Olympian the Games have ever known to jump in front of a moving vehicle.

"He did," Bowman said, "and they stopped."

Phelps got on. We all did, in fact. We were all there for the ride of a lifetime, a hilly journey on which I counted eight peaks and not a single valley.

Phelps made his final visit to a Beijing medal stand yesterday - his eighth gold broke Mark Spitz's 36-year-old record - but don't think for a second that the ride is over. Where it's going, no one knows. But I can't wait to find out.

Here's a modest plea: Don't slow the ride, Michael.

Take a break from the water. Finish moving your belongings from Michigan to Fells Point. Get used to the new neighborhood. Find a good coffee shop. A decent happy hour maybe. But then get back in the water. There's a lot more swimming to be done.

As Phelps addressed a packed room of reporters from all over the world yesterday, there was one tidbit from Phelps' past I kept recalling.

When Phelps was 11, Bowman called the swimmer's parents in for a meeting at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. He wanted to prepare them for how bright the future might be.

In 2004, he said, Phelps would be ready for the Olympics. In 2008, he would fare better, probably win a medal. But it would be 2012 when Phelps would really blossom.

When it comes to planning, Bowman doesn't get many things wrong, but his timeline was off by four years.

Of course, that isn't to suggest that great things aren't possible in London. In fact, while it's probably not fair to expect Phelps to equal his Beijing dominance, he could come close.

Phelps will be 27 in 2012. Traditionally, a swimmer that age would be scouting retirement homes in Florida. But Phelps isn't traditional in any sense of the word. Plus, the sport has changed so much in recent years.

More than three decades ago, Mark Spitz had to hang up his goggles because there was essentially no more opportunity in swimming. He was just 22 when he retired after the Munich Games.

It's a different world now. The money allows Phelps to remain in the pool. The training and preparation allow his body to recover quickly and survive not just from meet to meet, but from year to year. Rest assured, he'll still be a world-class athlete four years from now, one with a chance for at least five more gold medals.

His program here in Beijing mirrored the one in Athens. Phelps wanted to perfect it, and he did. While it will be tweaked almost immediately, that doesn't necessarily mean that his program will shrink considerably in the next four years.

Here's the thing about these Beijing Games that has gone unsaid: If the swimming schedule had been somehow spread out over three or four weeks, Phelps has the ability and the versatility to have contended for 10 gold medals. Or more.

What does this bode for the future? It simply means that Bowman and Phelps have some flexibility with their plans. If I had to guess today, I would say they would probably drop a couple of races and add a couple of races. But they won't be slowing down.

There are three new races that could appear on future programs. In the few times he has raced these events, Phelps has shown great success at the 100-meter freestyle, the 100 backstroke and even the 200 backstroke.

If he put time and energy and actually focused on these events, London's calling could be another worth setting the TiVo for.

He and Bowman will tinker with his program between now and London. The most refreshing and promising thing we heard after Phelps' big win came when he repeated one of his coach's favorite analogies.

"Bob's always saying, 'Well, this is putting money in the bank, and at the end of the year you're going to withdraw everything,' " Phelps said. "So I guess I put a lot of money in the bank over the last four years. And we withdrew pretty much every penny in the bank.

"So, it's sort of time to start - after Bob and I both have a little break - it'll be time to start redepositing."

That should have sent shock waves through the swimming community. The guy already has 14 gold medals in his collection. He receives thousands of requests each day on Facebook from people wanting to be his friend. On YouTube, fans record their reactions to his accomplishments - as though screaming and cheering was some type of accomplishment in and of itself.

What Phelps did over nine days in Beijing, we've never witnessed anything quite like it before. And if by some chance we're ever to see something similar, it will be only because Phelps himself has decided to accept his 2008 performance as some sort of challenge.

What a Games London 2012 could be. Sure, it's selfish, but does anyone really want the ride to end?

We're on the bus. Why get off now?


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