For swimmer Phelps, Games pressure is off

Olympian Michael Phelps journey started in Baltimore and now has covered five Olympics, winning 28 Olympic medals and 23 gold medals. He is considered one of the greatest athletes of all time. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)

ATHENS — His chase of Mark Spitz is done, but Michael Phelps isn't.

A year out of Towson High and a stroke or two from Olympic legend status, Phelps took a bronze medal in last night's 200-meter freestyle.Phelps was beaten by a savvy Australian and a veteran from the Netherlands. The result means he won't match the seven gold medals Spitz won in Munich, Germany, in 1972, the benchmark for Summer Olympic excellence.

However, Phelps is still on track to make history of his own.

Spitz won four individual events in Munich. Phelps can win four here, and he will likely become the first male swimmer to medal in five individual events and the first swimmer to get eight overall in one Olympics.

One Summer Olympics athlete has matched that total. In 1980, a Russian gymnast won eight medals, but Phelps probably wouldn't recognize the name of Alexander Dityatin. He knows Spitz's all too well, and finally acknowledged the weight of expectations that have followed him for a year.

"I guess you could say the pressure is off," said a weary Phelps, 19, after his eighth race in three days.

Ian Thorpe, last night's victor, once was as ambitious as Phelps. For eight months, the Australian has been saying that no one can match what Spitz did, but the Rodgers Forge resident wasn't backing down.

"I definitely don't want to count anything out," Phelps said. "When I started swimming, I never thought I would have an opportunity to repeat something like Mark Spitz did."

Last night's medal ceremony illustrated the stress Phelps is under. While Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband, the silver medalist, could afford to linger for photographers, Phelps had to get ready for the semifinals of the 200 butterfly.

He had all of 43 minutes between races, and wants to do it again. He has three individual events and two relays remaining. Two of the five come tonight, when Phelps wants to leapfrog Thorpe and make some in the U.S. media regret their plan to abandon the Olympic Aquatic Centre now that the Spitz watch is over.

It was Thorpe's second win here. Phelps isn't concerned about last night's semifinal loss to Great Britain's Stephen Parry and figures to get his second gold in the 200 butterfly. Some 80 minutes later, Thorpe and Phelps could determine which of the two will be the first to win a third gold, swimming the anchor leg of the 800 freestyle relay.

Phelps has his 400 individual medley gold and two bronzes, but last night's was more satisfying than Sunday's, when he was on the American foursome that came up flat in the 400 freestyle relay.

Thorpe is a chiseled 220 pounds, van den Hoogenband a brilliant sprinter who beat Thorpe in his hometown at the 2000 Olympics.

In Sydney, Phelps was the youngest male Olympian since 1952. Lost amid his 13 world records and numerous distinctions is the fact that he is one of two teenagers on the U.S. men's team.

When Spitz won his four individual golds, the American men didn't face the international depth Phelps is up against. Swimming's "Race of the Century" had a backdrop of green and gold behind Thorpe, orange rooting for van den Hoogenband and a substantial amount of red, white and blue for Phelps.

"It's a race that excited a lot of people on three continents," said Thorpe, who became Australia's most-decorated Olympic swimmer.

Van den Hoogenband, 26, was under world-record pace through the first 100 meters. No one swam faster than Phelps over the second 100, but he was never better than third. Thorpe, 21, passed van den Hoogenband coming off the final turn, and won in 1 minute, 44.71 seconds, matching his best of the past three years.

The two embraced, and Thorpe said: "I guess that makes it one all, and I'll see you again in Beijing."

That would be at the 2008 Olympics, where maturity would help Phelps. Closing on van den Hoogenband, Phelps swam 1:45.32, shaving more than two-thirds of a second off the American record he set last summer. It would have won every previous Olympic final.

A $1 million bonus from Speedo for equaling Spitz stoked the Phelps' story, for good or ill.

"We're disappointed that many viewed this as a prediction and not an opportunity," said Stu Isaac, a Speedo executive. "Did this put too much pressure on Michael? He's got a world record, a lifetime best [relay leg] in the 100 freestyle and he broke the Olympic record in the 200 freestyle."

Phelps' annual base compensation from Speedo, his first corporate sponsor, is approximately $350,000. He still could make nearly $500,000 in Olympic bonuses, but was asked if he would miss the $1 million linked to Spitz.

"How can you say no to that?" Phelps said. "It was in my mind, having a number like that thrown out there."

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