A sea change for swimming

As a young man, Michael Phelps dreamed of the day he would, in his words, change the sport of swimming in America.

He wanted to revolutionize it, drag it into the mainstream and elevate the sport's profile beyond what once seemed possible.

Although his work is not yet complete, the case can be made that the day Phelps once dreamed of when he was growing up in Rodgers Forge has already arrived.

The evidence can be seen all throughout the Qwest Center this week at the U.S. Olympic trials.

In August 2000, Phelps made his first Olympic team, finishing second in the 200-meter butterfly at the U.S. trials in Indianapolis. At 15, he became the youngest member of the U.S. men's swimming team in 68 years. About 4,000 people watched his race, and not many more saw it on television. Just a few hours of the trials that year were broadcast, all of them on tape delay.

This week, Phelps will swim in front of 14,000 people each time he dives into the pool, and there will be eight nights of live coverage on either NBC or the USA Network. More than 265 media members have been credentialed to cover the trials, and of the 1,241 athletes here vying to make the U.S. Olympic team, no one will loom larger than Phelps.

"I think we have a little different atmosphere now than has ever been seen before in the sport," Phelps says.

His success has not only made him a millionaire, it has also changed the sport of swimming from a business perspective. No longer are swimmers forced to retire from the sport in their mid-20s and begin searching for a job. Mark Spitz, who won seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, hung up his goggles at 22.

Phelps will turn 23 tomorrow, and he fully expects to compete at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. More than any other athlete in the pool, Phelps has helped usher in the era of the "professional" swimmer.

"Parents always used to tell their kids, 'You can't make a living out of swimming,'" says Mark Schubert, coach of USA Swimming. "That's not a true statement anymore."

Phelps isn't the only reason the sport has been trending older in recent years. But as Tiger Woods has done in golf, Phelps has brought more sponsors, more prize money and more eyeballs to the pool, making it possible for swimmers with Olympic talent to extend their careers.

Jason Lezak and Gary Hall Jr. have hung around and remained competitive into their early 30s, and on the women's side 41-year-old Dara Torres will try to make her fifth Olympic team this week. Speedo signed Katie Hoff to a 10-year deal in 2006 - the longest deal in the company's history - anticipating that the Towson star would continue to swim and set records into her late 20s.

"I think Michael has revolutionized the sport in terms of attention," says Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, who will take over as the CEO and coach of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club after the Beijing Olympics. "I think he's changed it developmentally. Now, collegiate swimming, which used to be the end of the road, is now another step in the progression of a career. I think it's great that people can make a living doing this, because we're going to see as they stay in the sport longer, they'll get better performances as they get more mature physiologically and psychologically."

The evolution is easy to measure just by looking at the team the United States brought to the FINA world championships last year in Melbourne, Australia. Of the 52 athletes, just three had college eligibility remaining.

"That was obviously a very big change," Schubert says. "That's good news for our sport. We thought for decades that swimming should be like track and field, that athletes should be swimming in their late 20s and early 30s."

Being the face of an entire sport can be, at times, an uncomfortable position for Phelps. At every meet, especially this one, he is the main story as far as the media are concerned, and when other American swimmers are consistently bombarded with questions about Phelps, snippets of frustration occasionally slip through the filter.

At the same time, many swimmers are quick to point out that he is one of the few athletes capable of handling the heavy burden of attention and expectations. Both Hoff and Natalie Coughlin say they couldn't imagine dealing with Phelps' level of fame.

It can be difficult, but at the same time, this is everything Phelps ever dreamed of.

"I remember being 8 or 9 years old and looking up to swimmers like Pablo Morales," Phelps says. "One of my goals was always to be a professional athlete, but if you had asked me five years ago if I'd be in the situation I am now, I would have said no."

Phelps, sporting a thick Fu Manchu mustache, laughed when one of the media members asked him what it was like to be seen as a sex symbol and a rock star by teenage girls interested in swimming.

"I love to win, and I love to compete," Phelps says. "I definitely don't consider myself a rock star. I see myself as the same person I was when I started swimming."

How much Phelps has changed over the years is a matter of debate. But there is no denying that the sport, thanks to him, is vastly different.

kevin.vanvalkenburg @baltsun.com