It takes a truly remarkable swimmer to leave an audience staring in rapt awe at a race in the pool, with its barely distinguishable limbs and lanes as a guide for context. But at the world championships in Melbourne, Australia, last March, Michael Phelps had the Aussie crowds staring at an inanimate gadget all week, even as their own swimmers, many who are national idols, toiled beside him.
In swimming parlance, Phelps spent the entire week "beating the line," the superimposed red string that speeds across arena scoreboard screens during races at world-record pace. In fashioning the greatest single-meet performance in the history of the sport, Phelps won seven gold medals and broke five world records. He broke some by such absurd margins that Australian swimmer Grant Hackett noted, "I'm not one for hyperbole, but he is just superhuman."
In Melbourne, Phelps lowered his own world records in the 200-meter butterfly by 1.62 seconds to 1:52.09, in the 200 individual medley by .86 of a second (1:54.98) and in the 400 IM by 2.02 seconds (4:06.22). He swam 1.34 seconds faster than his personal best to take .20 off Ian Thorpe's world-best in the 200 free.
It was a stunning statement from Phelps, who had appeared mortal in the 30 months since winning six gold medals at the Athens Olympics. Two months after those Games, Phelps suffered the first mark on his reputation when he was ticketed for DUI near his Baltimore home. At his next major international meet, the 2005 world championships in Montreal, Phelps won five gold medals, yet it seemed he had lost his place of preeminence.
So Phelps rededicated himself. He gave himself a moratorium on dating and religiously conked out at 10 p.m. each night. He added weight training to his regimen, a difficult addition since swimmers need buoyancy rather than bulk and have unique needs in the gym. A few years earlier, Phelps and coach Bob Bowman had hired a trainer who knew more about building football players and weightlifters, and the workouts became so counter-productive they gave up and greatly reduced Phelps' time in the gym. This year Phelps and Bowman found a trainer and program that was swimmer-friendly.
What's more, Phelps and Bowman, who have often been at each other's throats since Phelps' early teenage days, were arguing less and working together more smartly. "Michael has matured more than I ever expected," Bowman said in Melbourne. Now even swimmers who are older and more experienced pick Phelps' brain and monitor his laps for inspiration.Granted other athletes in other sports may stand far above their peers, but try to name one in any sport who leaves you scrambling for context as Phelps does; his peers in other sports simply don't provide it. LeBron James is not yet Michael Jordan. Sidney Crosby is not yet Wayne Gretzky. As an athlete who stands alone in his sport, Phelps stands alone across all sports. That distinction makes him Sportsman-worthy for me. "If I want to set a standard and change the sport of swimming, I know I can't go away from the things I need to do that," says Phelps. "There will be time in my life to do other things, but for now, I want to do best times in every race. If I don't at least push myself to do that, I won't be satisfied with the results."
And that is where Phelps has drawn his most important line.
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