- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2008

From the American perspective, the face of the Beijing Olympics isn’t Kobe Bryant, it isn’t Shawn Johnson and it isn’t Tyson Gay.

It’s Michael Phelps.

The casual person knows Phelps. The guy who called into the sports radio station Monday to talk about the Redskins knows Phelps. The soccer mom who watches swimming every four years and will stay up until midnight on the East Coast knows Phelps.

The network broadcasting the games rigged the schedule so U.S. viewers could watch the finals live.

“NBC has got to thank him immensely because he is their meal ticket for the first week of competition,” Mark Spitz said.

The opening week of the first Olympics held in a communist country since the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Games will be focused on a 23-year old athlete who grew up in Baltimore, trains in Ann Arbor, Mich., and has dominated the sport for the last four years. He will be making a second bid to break Spitz’s single games record of seven gold medals.

And although Phelps is semi-modest in saying this is his last year “to do something really big” - his current intention is to swim through the 2012 London Games - he could be right in one regard: Beijing may be his final chance to do something truly gigantic.

Phelps will swim in eight events (200 freestyle, 100 butterfly and 200 butterfly, 200 and 400 individual medley and three relays). He should win eight medals like he did in Athens. He’s favored in each of his individual events. If he wins the eight medals, he will leave China with 16 career medals, second in Olympic history.

“I’m more relaxed than I was four years ago,” he said. “Before Athens, I was a deer in the headlights.”

Said Spitz: “This is a marvelous time for Michael Phelps. I’m hoping he embraces this and relishes it because I know that I did when I went to Munich.”

Phelps made his Olympic debut in Sydney - at age 15, he was the youngest U.S. male Olympian since 1932. He finished fifth in the 200 butterfly in his first international meet.

Since then, he has made even more history.

Cue the domination. Some athletes have great weekends, terrific months and perhaps even outstanding years. Phelps is different - he is working on an awesome half-decade.

c2004 Olympics: six golds and two bronze medals with one world, two American and three Olympic records.

c2005 world championships: five golds and one silver.

c2007 world championships: seven golds and five world records.

cLast month’s Olympic trials: five events, five wins, two world records.

“I don’t think anything is too high,” Phelps said. “The only way to limit yourself is if you put limits on yourself. [Coach Bob Bowman] has helped me understand the sky is the limit and the more you use your imagination, the further you’ll go. If you think about doing the unthinkable, you have a good chance of doing it if you do everything right - work hard and recover right.”

Said USA Swimming general manager Mark Schubert: “He always enjoys his successes, but he quickly moves on to the next challenge. In Michael’s case, it’s his culture to swim multiple events. He’s a 400 IM-based swimmer, and that’s where he’s achieved their first success. When you train properly for that event, it gives you the ability to simulate other events. He always swims the maximum number of individual events because he’s trained for that feat.”

For the past 11 years Phelps has trained with Bowman, who after Athens mapped out a plan that would lead to Beijing.

“The two areas where Michael has improved: His physical strength and that’s a result of a much more intense strength training program, which was always part of our long-term plan because it gives him another element of power and speed to go with his stamina, which is really a special combination,” Bowman said. “The other area is his breaststroke - turning a stroke that was quite weak in the IMs in Athens into a strength.”

Phelps and Bowman are close during major competitions, making chiefly joint press conferences.

“It’s rare to find a coach-athlete combination who work together so well,” Phelps said. “We’re more than just a coach and an athlete. We’re friends. We both have so much love and passion for what we do, and we’re working together to accomplish our goals. We’ve done that from step one. Sometimes, we have bad communication here and there, but we tend to communicate very well with everything and anything that’s going on.

“I’m not always motivated. There are days still that I’m tired and I get grouchy. That’s the time when he pushes me even harder and forces me to go through something that’s not comfortable so I can be ready for anything that comes my way.”

As usual for Phelps at a major competition, he will be busy. He is expected to race 17 times during the nine days of competition. During one four-day stretch, he has 10 races.

The most daunting day is Aug. 15. The 200 IM final and a 100 butterfly semifinal are separated by less than 30 minutes. Spitz thinks Phelps’ two biggest hurdles are the 400 IM - because it’s his first final - and 100 fly - because it’s late in the week. But Spitz also expects Phelps to come through, in part because of his opponents’ mind-sets.

“It is quite difficult to imagine that one of his competitors is going to think on any given day going forward that it’s going to be his day because in the past five times they’ve been beaten by him,” Spitz said. “That’s a little demoralizing, and to think things could change is unlikely.”

The two spoke at the trials last month in Nebraska, and Spitz will be following Phelps’ effort to break his gold medal record.

“I’ve said this a thousand times - he’s one of the greatest Olympians out there,” Phelps said. “Having his support is pretty special.”

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