- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2003

BARCELONA, Spain — Michael Phelps already is being compared to Mark Spitz and Ian Thorpe.

How’s that for pressure?

The 18-year-old, just a month out of high school in Baltimore, already has set three world swimming records. He could shatter those and more at the World Championships in Barcelona, home of the 1992 Olympics.

The 6-foot-4 Phelps might swim seven events, which would allow him to challenge the seven gold medals Spitz won in the 1972 Olympics, or the six won by Australia’s “Thorpedo” at the 2001 Worlds in Fukuoka, Japan.

“He’s well on his way to becoming the most versatile swimmer in the world,” said U.S. men’s coach Dave Marsh. “I would say he’s the individual medley version of Ian Thorpe.”

This is Phelps’ first bout with high expectations. The next will come a year from now at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. By all indications, he’s ready.

Two weeks ago — a day before his 18th birthday — Phelps broke the 200-meter individual medley world record, bettering a time that had stood for nine years. He lowered the mark by almost a quarter-second in a windy outdoor pool in Santa Clara, Calif., wearing regular trunks instead of the quicker bodysuit.

Phelps didn’t even bother to shave his body hair for the race, and had a workout scheduled the next day.

“The day before that swim, he was trounced by [Aaron] Peirsol in the 200 backstroke, but he came back tougher the next day,” said Mark Schubert, who has coached six U.S. Olympic teams and is an assistant this year with the American women. “This reflects the sort of determination and the kind of person he is.”

Phelps may have been sending a message to Thorpe, who won three gold and two silver medals in Sydney and also is considering swimming seven events in Barcelona.

The 200 IM is the only event in which Phelps and Thorpe will meet head to head. The Aussie is expected to swim the 100, 200 and 400 freestyle, 200 IM and three relays.

Phelps holds world records in the 200 IM (1:57.94), 400 IM (4:11.09) and the 200 butterfly (1:54.58). He’s also just .03 behind Australian Michael Klim’s 100 butterfly record of 51.81.

“Everybody aspires to handle their career the way Ian Thorpe has handled his,” Marsh said. “He’s not just an Australian idol but an international icon. At this point, Michael Phelps is a very fast swimmer, but Barcelona and Athens will help define him.”

Fresh from clobbering an under-strength Australian team three months ago in the Duel in the Pool in Indianapolis, the Americans have a powerful team that rivals any they’ve sent to the orlds or Olympics.

“This team is as good as any team I have been with,” Schubert said. “Basically, it’s the U.S. vs. the world, and can we dominate like we did against the world in Sydney?”

The eight-day competition begins next Sunday, with the first seven days limited to water polo, diving, synchronized swimming and distance swimming.

Other countries — Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Japan and Ukraine among them — will also figure in what many think could be the fastest swim meet in history. A record 164 countries are represented among 2,200 participants.

Among the women, the rising star is 20-year-old Natalie Coughlin, who is billed as the best American female swimmer since Tracy Caulkins. Like Phelps, Coughlin emerged two years ago at the worlds in Japan.

Coughlin could leave Barcelona as the sport’s No.1 woman, replacing Dutch sprinter Inge de Bruijn.

The University of California swimmer was the first woman to break the one-minute barrier in setting the 100 backstroke world record (59.58). She’ll swim both backstrokes at the championships, the 100 butterfly and probably the 100 freestyle, and could wind up on all three relays.

“She’s going to be very busy. She’ll have to put on her chin strap for this one,” said U.S. women’s coach Jack Bauerle.

“Tracy Caulkins changed the landscape of women’s swimming, and Natalie could do that when the dust settles,” Bauerle added. “You know a woman is swimming fast when you have some guys wondering if they could do her time.”

The Americans also have depth behind the two superstars — a mix of returnees from Sydney, where they won 33 golds.

The only major absence is Olympic backstroke gold medalist Lenny Krayzelburg, who made the team but will miss out after undergoing shoulder surgery. He’s expected to compete for a spot in Athens.

Half the men’s team members are Olympic medalists, led by freestylers Anthony Ervin, Klete Keller and Jason Lezak.

Aaron Peirsol is the heir apparent to Krayzelburg in the 100 and 200 backstroke and the world record-holder in the 200.

Tom Malchow will be looking for his first gold in the worlds, hoping to match his Olympic gold in the 200 fly in Sydney.

Ed Moses is aiming to sweep the breaststrokes after taking Olympic silver in the 100 three years ago and bronze two years ago in the same event in the worlds.

Jenny Thompson, who has just completed her second year of medical school at Columbia University, will use Barcelona to gauge if she’ll swim one more Olympics.

She’s the only member of the team — man or woman — who swam 11 years ago in Barcelona. The outdoor Olympic pool will be used this time for warmups, with competition taking place indoors in a temporary pool next door at Palau Sant Jordi.

“My perspective on swimming is definitely different than it has been in the past,” said Thompson, 30, who has won eight Olympic gold medals (10 overall) and five golds in the worlds (nine overall). “These days, I just hope to inspire people to make a better life for themselves by living each day to the fullest.”

Lindsay Benko, the U.S. team captain and 800 freestyle gold medalist three years ago in Sydney, joins Thompson in providing leadership. Thompson, Benko and breaststroker Kristy Kowal are the only women who swam on the U.S. team five years ago at the worlds in Perth, Australia.

Among other top names, four-time Olympic gold medalist Alexander Popov of Russia will challenge 100- and 200-meter Olympic freestyle champion Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands.

De Bruijn, world record-holder in the 50 and 100 free and the 100 fly, will be racing. Germany’s Franziska van Almsick, the world record-holder in the 200 free, is skipping the worlds to concentrate on the Olympics.

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