- The Washington Times - Friday, August 13, 2004

He won’t pull it off. Can’t pull it off. The odds are longer than the road from Athens to Marathon. And heaven help Phidippides, we all know how that turned out.

A punishing program threatens exhaustion. Record-breaking rivals circle like sharks. Expectations pile across his broad shoulders, stacked in the manner of cordwood. He is just 19, owns zero Olympic medals and probably would be hard-pressed to match Mark Spitz’s lustrous mustache, never mind his unsurpassed legacy.

In fact, forget all about the man who made the butterfly cool and facial hair suave. When it comes to sheer athletic hubris, Spitz’s defiantly hirsute upper lip has nothing on Michael Phelps’ quest to equal the greatest feat in swimming history, a hunt that seems destined to end like any other Greek tragedy.

Unless, of course, Phelps does Spitz one better — in the pool, not below his nose.

“If you’re going to win seven gold medals, you might as well win eight,” American swimmer Gary Hall Jr. says. “It’s really exciting to be swimming alongside a guy like Michael. Just like it was exciting to swim alongside a guy like Spitz.”

Hall speaks from family experience: His father, Gary Sr., finished second in the 200-meter fly at the 1972 Munich Games, winning silver behind one of Spitz’s record-setting seven golds. Some two decades later, Phelps is taking dead aim at his iconic predecessor. Odds and obstacles be damned.

In doing so, the condor-armed resident of Rodgers Forge, Md., is positioned to become the signature athlete of the Athens Games, an instant household name, the smiling, clean-shaven face that launches a thousand cereal boxes. Plus whatever else sports megastars peddle these days — swim shoes, anyone?

Still, Phelps wants more. More than his allotted 16 days of glory. More than the cursory, once-every-four-years nod to a sport that sits somewhere between cycling and jai alai in terms of mass appeal.

“One of my goals is to change [swimming],” Phelps says. “Michael Jordan, what he did to basketball was completely change the sport. He was the best to ever play. Looking at what he did gives you a feel of what it takes.”

One gold medal. Publicly, Phelps says that would make him happy, make up for a shutout at the Sydney Olympics. The conceit is charming, in a one-day-at-a-time sort of way.

But take it with a grain of salt, if not a chunk of chlorine.

The numbers tell another story. Phelps qualified for a record six individual events at the U.S. swim trials in Sacramento. He will swim five solo races in Athens, plus up to three relays. Capture seven golds and sponsor Speedo will hand over a much-publicized $1 million bonus.

Besides, if millions of kids ever are going to equate Being Like Mike with lat-searing laps — as opposed to tongue-wagging jams — Phelps needs the attention that matching Spitz would provide. Anything less and he could be viewed as another Matt Biondi, whose Seoul Games haul of five golds, one silver and one bronze was unfairly seen as mildly disappointing.

Not by accident does Phelps have the Olympic rings tattooed on his right hip.

“Our thought process is always take one race at a time,” says Bob Bowman, Phelps’ coach at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. “If he happens to swim that many races and does well in all those races, then [the record] would be nice.”

Bowman smiles.

“It’s possible to do some pretty amazing things when you have a talent like Michael,” he adds. “He’s certainly capable of swimming a program like that.”

Indeed. Should swim-mad scientists engineer the perfect competitor, the result will look like Phelps. He stands 6-foot-5 with a 76.5-inch wingspan and size 14 feet. Chiseled shoulders top his supermodel-narrow waist.

Mentally, Phelps has an intuitive grasp of the sport’s calculus, the splits and times that divide good from great; emotionally, his laid-back vibe masks a Jordan-esque competitive streak.

After finishing second to Olympic teammate Ian Crocker in a world championship race last year, Phelps tacked Crocker’s picture to his bedroom wall. As a 7-year-old lacrosse defender, Phelps sprinted up and down the field, always wanting to be in the action, refusing to play his side of the pitch.

Then there’s “wallball,” a makeshift game Phelps and teammates once played before practice. The rules are simple. Toss a ball at the wall. Get out of the way.

“[Michael] was always the one who never got out,” Bowman recalls. “And if he did, it was always, ‘You cheated.’ He always wanted to win.”

Bowman first saw Phelps swim in 1996. At the end of a brutal, 8,000-yard workout, Phelps buried a group of 14- and 15-year-olds in a series of 100-meter sprints. He was 11. A year later, Bowman sat down with Phelps’ divorced parents, Debbie and Fred.

The good news? Your son could be an Olympian in 2004. The really, really good news? He could do it again in 2008. Not to mention 2012.

“I was like, ‘You’ve lost your mind,’” recalls Debbie Phelps, a school administrator. “You’re talking about a 11-year-old boy, and you’re saying 2012 could be his best Olympics?”

Actually, Bowman had it wrong: Phelps went to Sydney at 15, finishing fifth in the 200 fly. Five months later, he set a world record in the event, becoming the youngest male record holder in swimming history.

The Spitz comparisons began in earnest following last summer’s world championships in Barcelona, where Phelps set five world records and won six medals, four of them gold. He went on to top LeBron James for the Sullivan Award, given to the nation’s top amateur athlete.

Like James, Phelps has been a coverboy for both Sports Illustrated and ESPN Magazine. With track awash in doping scandals, he figures to be NBC’s main Olympic attraction. Sponsors are betting on him: Powerbar, AT&T; Wireless, a ubiquitous Visa commercial that depicts Phelps swimming in the ocean toward Greece.

Though Phelps runs the risk of a hype-fueled backlash — anyone remember Dan and Dave? — he seems nonplussed by the spotlight, more interested in his Xbox and iPod than in outsized expectations. But don’t get the wrong idea. Olympic teammate Natalie Coughlin says Phelps feeds off pressure. Bowman seconds the notion.

“To be honest, I really haven’t seen a change in Michael,” he says. “He seems to be very grounded and focused, just as he was when was 11. That’s one of the special things about him. I think he has more fun now because there’s more at stake.”

Phelps grew up at the pool. His two older sisters both swam competitively — Hilary at the University of Richmond, Whitney as a world-class junior who regularly topped future gold medalist Misty Hyman.

Five years older than Michael, Whitney entered the 1996 Olympic trials as a 15-year-old favorite in the 200 fly. She failed to qualify, hampered by a bad back that would later force her out of the sport.

Even now, the disappointment lingers. But when little brother made Team USA in 2000, becoming America’s youngest male swimmer since 1932, Whitney was the first one to hug him on the pool deck.

“We all grew as a family from that experience,” Debbie Phelps says. “This is what Michael grew up with, dinner by the pool, doing homework in the car. I think the girls instilled in him a positive work ethic, the stick-to-it-iveness.”

Phelps has come a long way since Sydney, where he walked onto the deck with an untied shoe, strings hanging out of his suit. A former pouter who tossed his goggles after losses, he now flashes a pre-race hand signal to mother — the letter “C,” for composure.

Michael and Debbie are close. She split with Fred Phelps, a retired state policeman, in 1995. Michael keeps in sporadic contact with his father via e-mail. But the relationship is strained. Mom filled the void.

“My message that I’ve tried to carry in our home is to enjoy what your child does, embrace that moment, live it to the fullest,” Debbie says. “I’ll be proud of Michael no matter what he does. Because of that, he has a comfort about swimming.”

Good thing. While Spitz swam 13 Olympic races en route to seven golds, Phelps could race as many as 20 times in eight days. On August 19, he’ll swim three times in less than 11 hours, with the 100 fly semis coming just 35 minutes after the 200 IM final.

Phelps survived a similarly taxing stretch at the U.S. trials — four races one day, four more the next. Visibly spent, he called the second evening the “hardest” of his career, a telling admission from a swimmer whose weight can fluctuate by as many as 10 pounds in a week and 5 pounds in a day.

“I definitely think that day and the following day he suffered,” men’s Olympic coach Eddie Reese said afterward. “But he suffers at such a high level, it’s hard to compare it to anything.”

Speaking of hard comparisons: Spitz never faced competition like that awaiting Phelps. In 1972, American relay medals were almost assured; in Athens, two of the three U.S. teams won’t be favored. The individual races could be tougher still. Phelps holds world records in three events but is ranked behind Crocker and Australia’s Ian Thorpe in two others.

Phelps lost twice at the U.S. trials, once to Crocker and once to Aaron Piersol. Both times, the other guy set a world record.

Win or lose, Bowman believes Phelps will be even better in four years and remain a force in eight, long after his current rivals have come and gone. He can still improve his starts. Tighten his turns. Maybe, just maybe, amass more medals than any Olympian. Ever.

“I don’t think he’s near his potential level yet,” Bowman says. “But a lot will depend on longevity. If he continues to do things over the course of his career, then he could be that kind of person.”

Phelps isn’t thinking that far ahead. Never has. Upon breaking his own 200 fly world record at the 2001 world championships in Japan, he was besieged by reporters. Bowman hung back, letting his charge enjoy the moment.

The two later met on a team bus. Why, Phelps asked, are they asking me about Mark Spitz? What did he do?

Well, Bowman replied, he did win seven gold medals at one Olympic Games.

“Michael looked at me and said, ‘Wow, that’s pretty good,’” Bowman recalls with a laugh. “I said, ‘Yeah, not too bad.’”

For his part, the 54-year-old Spitz is pulling for Phelps. The past and present have crossed paths only once, when Spitz presented Phelps with an award at the U.S. trials. One man set the standard. Can the other match it, raising the bar for an entire sport?

“Being compared to such an icon is an honor,” Phelps says. “I just really want to be the best that I can be. Anything’s possible.”

After slipping a medal around Phelps’ neck, Spitz pulled him close, whispering in his ear. What was said remains private. Rest assured, it didn’t involve chin whiskers.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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