Michael Phelps may be wet behind the ears, but he was fast beyond
his years at the worlds
This is an article from the Aug. 6, 2001 issue
At the world swimming championships in Fukuoka, Japan, last
Friday, Michael Phelps sat in the press room of the Marine Messe
arena and eyed a newsletter headline that read WORLD RECORDS FOR
TEENAGE SENSATIONS IAN THORPE AND MICHAEL PHELPS. Sure, Phelps,
16, had just swum 1:54.58 to shatter the world mark in the
200-meter butterfly for the second time in four months, but to
share top billing with a legend, albeit a contemporary one, was
to be in uncharted waters. "Awesome," Phelps crowed. "He's like
And all-worldly. Thorpe, 18, shed his teenage awkwardness long
ago. He hired an agent at 14, became a Qantas spokesman at 15,
met the Australian prime minister at 16, won five Olympic medals
in Sydney at 17 and recently started a foundation to aid
disadvantaged children. Thorpe comports himself with a confidence
and sophistication beyond that of most adults, and he can swim a
little too. In Fukuoka he set personal bests in each of the seven
events he entered, won six gold medals--the most ever at a world
championships--and broke world records in four events (the
200-meter freestyle, 400 free, 800 free and 4x200 free relay). In
the 4x100 free relay Thorpe, swimming the anchor leg for
Australia, overcame a deficit of nearly a body length in the last
30 meters to edge Anthony Ervin of the U.S. team, which was later
disqualified for having used a swimmer not officially entered in
Thorpe's training has changed little since last year, but his
turns are now more fluid and his pacing is improved. "At this
rate he'll surely be the greatest swimmer who's ever lived," says
Kieren Perkins, an Australian freestyler who won gold medals in
Barcelona and in Atlanta. "But being that fast is not as
impressive as being that together." So sure of himself is Thorpe
that he felt free to criticize the drug testing policies of FINA,
swimming's governing body, during the worlds (saying testing was
too lax), and when he returns to his home in the Sydney suburbs,
he feels free to set the nutritional agenda for his parents. "I
eat better when Ian's around because we cook what he wants," says
his father, Ken, a retired gardener. "He doesn't allow sweets
when he's home."
He's there a lot less often these days. Since the Olympics,
Thorpe has attended parties for Giorgio Armani and Jennifer
Lopez, met Queen Elizabeth, visited the Royal Palace in Monte
Carlo and accepted an invitation to see Chelsea Clinton, who had
told him in Sydney, "If you're ever in Washington...." Thorpe was
playing catch with the First Daughter and the first dog, Buddy,
last year when a helicopter plopped down on the White House lawn.
"Oh look, my dad's home," said Chelsea.
There were no snazzy invites for Phelps after he set his first
world record in the 200, 1:54.92, at the U.S. nationals in Austin
in March. He returned home to Baltimore and wanted to celebrate
over dinner with his sister Hillary at a local Cheesecake
Factory. Told there was a two-hour wait, they moved on, unwilling
to try to play the celebrity card. "I couldn't have," says
Phelps, a junior at Towson (Md.) High. "Outside my school, people
don't know who I am. It doesn't compare, me and Thorpe."
It does in some ways. With his race in Austin, the swimmer who
has been called the U.S. answer to Ian Thorpe supplanted Thorpe
as the youngest male swimmer ever to set a world record. Both
teens have mothers who are schoolteachers and older sisters who
made their national swim teams. Both wear their success modestly.
There the parallels end. Thorpe has made millions from swimming,
through contracts with Adidas, Coke and Omega, and has had his
nickname, Thorpedo, trademarked. Phelps is still an amateur
(though that may change soon). At 15, Thorpe won his first car;
at 16, Phelps is waiting to get his learner's permit. Thorpe
fancies films; Phelps prefers PlayStation. As Thorpe was bracing
for another round of globe-trotting, Phelps was getting his
braces off, the better to devour his favorite meal--lasagna,
pretzels, cheeseburger subs and a waffle cone filled with French
vanilla ice cream and Butterfinger bits.
A post-teen rivalry is conceivable, because Phelps swims the
400-meter individual medley and Thorpe may one day add that to
his repertoire. "The advice I would give Michael is not to limit
your expectations by your age," says Thorpe. "It's a great time
learning the person you'll become, so enjoy it."
A FINA Mess
Thanks to a faulty timing system and blundering FINA officials,
the women's 4x200-meter relay produced three winners and wasn't
resolved for 15 hours. On the evening of July 25 the Australians
touched the wall first, followed by the U.S. and Great Britain.
FINA officials immediately disqualified the Aussies for jumping
into the pool to celebrate before last-place Italy had finished.
Then they DQ'd the U.S. team when the automatic timing system
indicated that the second American swimmer, Cristina Teuscher,
had left the blocks .06 of a second before her teammate Natalie
Coughlin had touched the wall. (Rules permit a difference of up
to .03 of a second.) That timing system, however, had been
malfunctioning all evening--FINA had adjusted 10 finish times up
to that point in the competition based on video evidence from a
Later that night, poolside referee Andriy Vlaskov of the Ukraine
consulted the video, found Teuscher had left the blocks only .01
before Coughlin touched and reinstated the U.S. team, giving the
Americans the gold. The next morning a FINA appeals jury refused
to view the video, overturned Vlaskov's decision and gave the
gold to Great Britain. "We've gone from third to second to first
to second to first," said British swimmer Karen Legg, "so I'm a
FINA spokesman Sam Ramsamy, an IOC member from South Africa,
clumsily defended FINA's actions at a Thursday press conference,
and Australian coach Don Talbot called the decision makers a
"kangaroo court." USA Swimming president Dale Neuberger said his
federation will appeal the case to the Court of Arbitration for
Sport in Lausanne.
With a cult status rivaling that of Eddie (the Eagle) Edwards,
Equatorial Guinea's Eric (the Eel) Moussambani may have led all
competitors in autographs signed at the worlds. He also showed
improvement in the pool: Moussambani, who had swum only in a
crocodile-infested river before flailing his way to a last-place
finish in the 100-meter freestyle at the Sydney Olympics,
defeated three of 91 swimmers in the 50 free, his only event in
Fukuoka....China continued its dominance in diving, winning
medals in all 10 events, including eight golds....
After 10 silvers and 22 bronzes, Japan earned its first world or
Olympic gold in synchronized swimming when Miya Tachibana and
Miho Takeda won the duet....
Sven Lodziewski, a 37-year-old German doctor who last made a
world team in 1986, won the bronze medal in the 4x100 freestyle
relay. Ian Thorpe hadn't been born when Lodziewski competed at
his first worlds, in '82....
Montreal beat out Long Beach, Calif., for the right to host the
2005 worlds. Barcelona will be the host in 2003....
U.S. freestyler Lindsay Benko, who won a relay gold in Sydney,
didn't compete after fracturing her kneecap by banging it on a
ledge of a Fukuoka training pool while jumping in with her back
to the water....
Russian star Alexander Popov, an IOC member, missed the worlds
because of tonsillitis....
These championships marked the first time a portable pool was
used for a major international long-course (50-meter-pool)
Thorpe's record assault overshadowed the performances of the
Netherlands' Inge de Bruijn, who took home three gold medals,
and Anthony Ervin of the U.S., who won both sprint freestyle