Fates, feats joined in pool

One in a series of occasional articles on Michael Phelps and his path to the 2004 Olympics.

SYDNEY, Australia - Three months past his 15th birthday, Ian Thorpe became the youngest male ever to claim a world championship in swimming.

At 15 years and 9 months, Michael Phelps became the youngest ever to set a world record in the sport.

The Phelps milestone came in 2001, when Thorpe became the first man in 16 years to win three individual events at one world championship meet.

Last summer, Phelps joined that select company.

The hometown hero in 2000, the Australian is the one swimmer who comprehends the power of the microscope that the Baltimorean could be under at the 2004 Olympics.

The two are inexorably linked, despite being separated by three years in age, 14 time zones and the fact that Thorpe enjoys a radically different status here.

The planet's smallest continent is also its largest island. Crocodile Dundee introduced America to the outback, but 90 percent of Australians live within six miles of surf, and parents who don't teach their children to swim are considered negligent.

Out of necessity, the population seems obsessed with water sports.

You can count the number of Olympic-sized pools in the Baltimore area on one hand. Contrast that with Sydney, where it's estimated there are more than 300. Take the ferry to Manly and read the text on the monument to surfer Bob Pike, "the first and greatest of Australia's big-wave riders." A T-shirt reads, "Australian Surf-Rowers League."

School is out, and hundreds are taking lessons on surfboards and kayaks or in scuba gear.

On the south side of the entrance to Port Jackson - the self-proclaimed finest harbor in the world - lies Bondi and its more famous beach. You can the join the Bondi Icebergs and swim in a pool of sea water separated from crashing waves by a concrete wall, or breakfast at Speedo's Cafe, maybe the only restaurant on Earth devoted to a swimsuit.

While Phelps' television profile has been low thus far, commercials here feature Olympic 1,500-meter freestyle champion Grant Hackett hawking granola bars. Sit-com stars aren't on the cover of women's magazines; instead, you get family photos of Dawn Fraser or Susie O'Neill, past Olympic champs.

On the celebrity front, all pale in comparison to Thorpe. The 21-year-old has a ways to go to become his nation's most decorated Olympic swimmer, but he has long been its most famous.

Readers of the Sydney Sun-Herald voted on their preferred Christmas dinner guest. Russell Crowe finished fourth. Nicole Kidman was No. 3. Runner-up was Prime Minister John Howard. No. 1 was Thorpe, Sydney's favorite son, the big blond who mixes menace and glamour on the starting block, where an all-black bodysuit designed by Adidas announces the fastest middle distance freestyler ever.

Familiar for his size-17 feet and charity work, Thorpe has been a source of pride since 1998, when he earned his first world title, in the 400 freestyle. That created more than two years of Olympic hype and expectation, which in the end were not fulfilled.

The previous Summer Olympics were held here, in Thorpe's hometown, and you couldn't go two blocks in 2000 without seeing his image. His "IT" underwear line wasn't out back then, but Thorpe already knew the ABCs of the endorsement business. He had contracts with an airline, a bank and a cereal, not to mention a telecommunications giant.

Hot from start

Swimming took center stage the first evening after Sydney's opening ceremony, when 18,000 crammed into the International Aquatics Center. Still just 17, Thorpe won the 400 free and lowered his own world record.

Less than an hour later, he anchored Australia in the 400 freestyle relay, in which the previous seven gold medals had gone to the United States. When Thorpe out-dueled Gary Hall Jr., chests puffed out even more than normal.

Swimming, mind you, does not have a stranglehold on the sporting consciousness here.

The Saturday before Phelps arrived last month for two meets, Australia took England into overtime in the final of rugby's World Cup. A week later, Australia claimed tennis' Davis Cup. The retirement of cricket legend Steve Waugh got more play than Cal Ripken's did in Baltimore.

Jen Adams, the best women's lacrosse player ever, left here and lifted Maryland to four NCAA titles. There is a roster of golfers that includes Greg Norman, and Australian Rules Football siphons off athletic prospects.

But in a nation of 20 million - more than New York state but less than Texas - that relay victory became part of the oral tradition.

"We lionize those people," Don Talbot, the national coach at that giddy moment, said recently of Australia's greats.

Euphoria, however, was followed by a hangover. A Dutchman named Pieter van den Hoogenband upset Thorpe in the 200 free - and stole his world record, to boot.

The calendar can lead to cruel cases of Olympic roulette. Are a coaching change and illness responsible for his performance leveling off this year, or is it possible that he peaked between Sydney and Athens?

At the 2001 world championships, Thorpe won the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles, all in world-record time. The older a swimmer gets, the harder it is to get records and recover from a daunting schedule like that. Thorpe was 18 years, 9 months during his finest hour. When the Olympics go to Greece next August, Phelps will be two months past his 19th birthday.

Thorpe's was the best performance in the history of the championships - until Phelps went to Barcelona last August and had an unprecedented five world records. That helped Phelps forge eight world-record performances this year. Thorpe had none, and in 2002, he got faster only in the 400 freestyle.

Toward the end of last year, he changed coaches, ditching Doug Frost for Stacey Menzies. The 800 free, a non-Olympic event, was dropped from his world championship program. In Barcelona, he repeated in the 200 and 400 freestyles. Thorpe also gained a silver, behind Phelps, in the 200 individual medley and bronze in the 100 free.

Thorpe's total of overall world titles is a record six. He has one individual Olympic gold, no more than Hackett, who scored his in the 1,500 freestyle. With seven gold medals in the 1,500, Australians are most proud of their legacy in that macho event, so why is Thorpe so much more celebrated?

"The respect we have is the same," Hackett said, "but his profile is more recognized. He has a level of performance in more events, and when you do that, you're going to be on TV a lot more. Not only that, Ian has promoted himself a lot more, gone more places, done more world media."

Low-key interlude

Thorpe spent much of November in Arizona, training at altitude and enjoying anonymity, American style.

"It was really nice to go over there," Menzies said. "Ian's identity was low-key. The image Ian has here is extraordinary, the same as when he goes to Japan. It's very flattering to walk down the street. With that comes a price tag.

"His life has to be governed in a certain way. He can't go and be a normal 21-year-old. I suppose there's a price tag for anything. Movie stars and people like that have a very sheltered life, in a lot of regards."

Thorpe contacted Mark Spitz about how to handle being a swimming legend, but the Australian has provided the template for Phelps.

Flash back to Fukuoka, Japan, site of the 2001 world championships, in which Phelps won his first international title. They were the last two competitors out of the natatorium one night, and Phelps absorbed the scene as Thorpe was treated like the fifth Beatle.

Over the next eight months, a thousand questioners will ask Phelps about a possible assault on Olympic history and Spitz's record seven gold medals in 1972.

"We don't look at the interest as pressure," Phelps will reply. "We look at it as support."

The stock answer was borrowed from Thorpe.

Representatives of Phelps have discussed a partnership with Asahi TV, to reach the Japanese market.

Who already has a deal with that network? Thorpe.

In order to narrow his focus, Phelps will become more selective with the media. His own biographer has trouble getting an audience with Thorpe.

The physical gifts, the arduous training, the cutting-edge marketing, Thorpe has been there and done that, but the similarities pre-date a rivalry that the Australian is loath to acknowledge.

Each was nurtured by a schoolteacher mom. Whereas Phelps was initially afraid to put his face in the water, Thorpe was once determined to be allergic to chlorine. They drafted behind swimming sisters. Would you believe Whitney Phelps and Christina Thorpe both competed in the 1995 Pan Pacific Championships?

Phelps will steer clear of upcoming World Cup stops in Europe. Thorpe went there last winter and took ill afterward. He passed on last April's Duel in the Pool, and it was the first in a series of no-shows that miffed Phelps.

Thorpe invited Phelps to come Down Under and train. Phelps did just that last spring, but at the last minute Thorpe sent word that he would be out of town. Last month at the Qantas Skins, a hastily conceived relay matching them on the anchor was added as a climax. Complaining of jet lag after flying in from Flagstaff earlier that day, Thorpe begged out, but a weary Phelps slogged on.

Possible routes

It could all lead to an interesting third week of August in Athens, where they might collide if Phelps is serious about seeking an unprecedented five individual gold medals.

That would require another event on his international program. Phelps could challenge Ian Peirsol in the 200 backstroke, but that would require four races on both of the sixth and seventh days of Olympic swimming.

Another scenario would put Phelps in the 200 freestyle, where Thorpe has six of history's seven fastest times. Last year, Phelps was four seconds slower than Thorpe, but in 2003 the gap between their seasonal bests shrunk to .85 of a second.

Thorpe's notable quote in the Australian media guide for the worlds read, "I don't believe anyone is unbeatable or anything is impossible," but he was skeptical when asked recently if Spitz's record is sacrosanct.

"I think it is unattainable for me and unattainable for anyone," Thorpe told the media after being honored at the Australian Swimmer of the Year Awards in Melbourne earlier this month.

Thorpe knows expectations and that the Americans have work to do in several relays. He may be right, but what does Phelps think?

"If he says that it can't be done, then obviously, he thinks he can't do it," Phelps said. "That's not to say someone else can't."