Michael Phelps just can’t slow down.
Eleven months after a seemingly once-in-a-lifetime Olympic performance, America’s swimming phenom is gearing up for a similarly challenging schedule at the FINA World Championships, which begin today in Montreal.
Call it an Athens redux.
“He would like to push himself to a new level,” said Bob Bowman, Phelps’ longtime coach.
Bowman had projected Greece as the likely peak of Phelps’ career. He was experienced enough to be one of the world’s best in several strokes but young enough — only 19 at the time — to handle the physical toll of swimming eight events in eight days.
Phelps certainly fulfilled his coach’s prophecy, capturing six golds and a record-tying haul of eight medals overall.
Now, instead of backing off in a biennial championship that won’t bring nearly as much attention in the United States — even with Montreal being just across the border — Phelps will attempt to duplicate his Olympian exploits at the ripe ol’ age of 20.
Phelps left his teenage years behind a couple of weeks ago, but he’s hardly over the hill. In fact, his lanky, 6-foot-5 body still seems fully capable of doing it all over again.
“I feel good, so let’s keep it going,” he said.
Who knows? Phelps might keep it going all the way to Beijing, still three years away on the Olympic calendar.
“If he continues along the way he is now, has a good year of training next year, I don’t see why he couldn’t attempt the same thing in Beijing that he did in Athens,” Bowman said in a revised and more tantalizing forecast.
Phelps will take on a slightly different challenge in Montreal. He swapped two of his world-record events, the 200-meter butterfly and 400 individual medley, for the 100 and 400 freestyles.
“We just wanted to try something different,” Bowman said.
Phelps also qualified for the 100 butterfly, 200 free and 200 IM — holdovers from his Olympic regimen — along with 400 and 800 free relays. In addition, he likely will be picked to swim the 400 medley relay.
That adds up to eight. Again.
“Michael is like a lot of top-level guys,” American rival Ian Crocker said. “Every time you question them, say they can’t do something, that’s when they prove you wrong. I expect him to deliver on his goals.”
Bowman knows it will be difficult for Phelps to match his gold medal haul from last summer. He’s a long shot in the 100 free — “I’d just like to see him do a best time in that event,” his coach said — and hasn’t come close to matching Grant Hackett in the 400 free.
But Phelps is eager to see how he stacks up against the Australian star — and so is Hackett, world record holder in the 1,500. He even added the 200 free to his extensive schedule in response to Phelps’ decision to swim the 400.
“It’s the competitor in him,” Hackett’s coach, Denis Cotterell, told the Australian newspaper. “Grant’s saying, ‘I don’t want to look like I am scared to meet him in his territory,’ and there’s also the motivation of racing the guy who’s accepted as the best swimmer on the planet.”
With Ian Thorpe skipping these championships, Phelps vs. Hackett is shaping up as the most intriguing showdown in Montreal. Thorpe has been on an extended break from training since the Athens Games.
Hackett is a former world record holder in the 200, but Phelps won an Olympic bronze in that event — ahead of Hackett. The Australian’s best time in the 400 is nearly four seconds faster than Phelps’ mark, but the two have never raced at that distance.
Phelps, Crocker, Aaron Peirsol and Brendan Hansen lead an overpowering U.S. men’s team, which looks much like the squad that dominated in Athens.
“I’ll certainly get all the blame if we don’t do well,” men’s coach Dave Salo quipped.
With three-time Olympian Amanda Beard taking the year off — she has done some modeling and dated NASCAR driver Carl Edwards — the American women will rely heavily on Natalie Coughlin, who won five medals in Athens.
Also being counted on: youngsters like Katie Hoff and Kelsey Ditto, both 16, and 17-year-old Kate Ziegler.
“We have to get them on the fast track so they can get the international experience and confidence to be successful in Beijing,” said Chuck Wielgus, who heads USA Swimming. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
The Americans will be even more hard-pressed to keep up with the rest of the world in the other events at these 15-day aquatic championships: diving, synchronized swimming, water polo and open-water swimming.
As usual, the Chinese are the team to beat on the boards, having claimed a record six diving golds in Athens and intent on winning all eight events when the Olympics come to their homeland in 2008.
The United States went back to the drawing board after failing to win an Olympic medal for the first time in 92 years. New selection procedures, new training methods, a whole new approach — anything to help America reclaim its former status as a diving superpower.
“In Athens, it all came crashing down,” said Steve McFarland, a vice president at USA Diving and part of the committee that selected the 14-member Montreal team.
“We all looked at each other and said, ‘OK, let’s do this. Let’s do something radically different. Let’s start over.’”
Sydney gold medalist Laura Wilkinson is one of just four holdovers from Athens. The youth movement includes 15-year-old Thomas Finchum, 16-year-olds David Boudia, J.J. Kinzbach and Kelci Bryant and 17-year-old Chelsea Davis.
“We are focused on winning Olympic medals,” McFarland said. “The world championships are a benchmark for us along the way to see how we are stacking up.”
It’s too early in the process to mount a serious challenge to the Chinese, who are expected to get their stiffest competition from the home team. Olympic medalists Alexandre Despatie and Emilie Heymans lead the Canadians.
Coughlin broke her left foot shortly after the Olympics and is just getting back to top form. She qualified for two individual events in Montreal and hopes to swim all three relays, as well.
Two years ago, Coughlin became ill during the world championships in Barcelona, ruining her hopes of a Phelps-like performance.
“I don’t feel I need to make up for anything,” Coughlin said. “That was a freak thing in Spain. I had a 103-degree fever. A lot of people would have been hospitalized in that situation. I’m really proud of how I handled it.”
Phelps had a major hiccup handling his post-Athens success, getting arrested for drunken driving.
“I’ve learned from this mistake and will continue learning from this mistake for the rest of my life,” said a contrite Phelps, who pleaded guilty and received 18 months on probation.
He also moved away from Baltimore, leaving the comfort of his mother’s home to follow Bowman to the University of Michigan.
“It was a big adjustment at first,” the coach said. “Just being able to provide his own meals, keep everything clean — that’s all stuff he used to take for granted. It was tough for him.”
In the pool, Phelps makes it look easy.
He’s the unquestioned star of the swimming world, especially at these championships with no Thorpe, Beard or Pieter van den Hoogenband, the Dutch star who’s recovering from a hernia operation. Also, Olympic stalwarts Jenny Thompson of the United States and Alexander Popov of Russia called it a career after Athens.
Phelps had a breakthrough performance at the last world championships, becoming the first swimmer to set five world records at a single meet.
But it’s a lot tougher finding the motivation to swim a year after Athens. In fact, most coaches would prefer the championships be held every four years, sandwiched directly between the Olympics.
“It was difficult to get back into training,” Coughlin conceded.
Montreal had problems of its own. The championships were stripped from the city in January because of budget woes, but the move was rescinded a few weeks later when the Canadians came up with additional funding.
A new complex has been constructed at the Parc Jean-Drapeau, a picturesque locale in the middle of the St. Lawrence River that was site of the 1967 world’s fair.
“We’ve been to the venue, and it’s fantastic,” Bowman said. “Everything is in place to have a great event.”