Phelps Is on the Way
Michael Phelps announced himself as an Olympic favorite after
winning three events at the U.S. Nationals
After winning the 200-meter backstroke at the U.S. National
Spring Swimming Championships in Indianapolis on April 2,
17-year-old Michael Phelps spoke to reporters from the discomfort
of a flimsy folding chair. It was the only time all week that
Phelps, the boy wonder of U.S. swimming, came close to being
unseated. Over the next two days he won the 200-meter freestyle
and the 100-meter butterfly, making him the first male swimmer to
win U.S. titles in three strokes at the same competition. "He's
raising the bar in swimming the way Michael Jordan did in
basketball," says Tom Wilkens, a U.S. bronze medalist in the 200
individual medley at the Sydney Olympics.
Phelps was 15 at those Games, the youngest member of a U.S.
Olympic swim team in 68 years, and the spotlight has been on him
ever since. He finished fifth in the 200-meter butterfly in
Sydney and set the world record in the event in March 2001,
supplanting Australian star Ian Thorpe as the youngest male
swimmer to break a world record. "It's a mistake to call Ian
Thorpe the best in the world," says U.S. backstroker Lenny
Krayzelburg, a triple gold medalist in Sydney. "Thorpe is good in
freestyle; Phelps is good across the board."
Expectations were that Phelps and Thorpe would square off on
Sunday in a dual meet between the U.S. and Australia, but Thorpe
stayed home with a virus, postponing the confrontation until the
worlds this July in Barcelona.
Not that the two won't be in the same pool before then. Later
this month Phelps will travel to Sydney, at Thorpe's invitation,
to train with him for three days. "I'm eager to see how he
strokes, kicks, turns, how he handles attention," Phelps says. "I
want to learn everything I can from him."
Unlike Thorpe, who allows himself the odd rest day, Phelps, a
senior at Towson (Md.) High, swims every day that he isn't
traveling. If Phelps has a flaw, it's his tendency to glide too
long into turns, losing up to a tenth of a second per lap. "The
work ethic has always been there," says his coach, Bob Bowman,
but he has had to work on his confidence.
When Michael's mother, Debbie, a schoolteacher, started him
swimming at age seven, he took to the backstroke first because he
feared having his face underwater. Even as his strokes grew more
fluid, he took time to grow into what is now a 6'3", 165-pound
After an unnerving press conference three years ago, in which
reporters asked personal questions about his girlfriend, Phelps
grew leery of the media. These days he takes classes in which he
critiques tapes of his interviews.
On Sunday, before Phelps set a world record in the 400 IM and a
U.S. record in the 100 butterfly against the Australians, Debbie
had hung up a banner with a motto that also adorns Michael's
bedroom wall: ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS. Half a world away,
Thorpe was listening.
Here are five U.S. swimmers who, along with Michael Phelps, could
make a big splash at the Athens Games in 2004:
NATALIE COUGHLIN--World champion in the 100 backstroke is also
a superb freestyle sprinter
LINDSAY BENKO (ABOVE)--Sydney gold medalist in the 4 x 200
relay holds two world records in short-course events
KLETE KELLER--U.S. record holder in the 400 free, he is not yet a
serious threat to Australia's Ian Thorpe
ED MOSES--The nation's best breaststroker is a strong starter
but an inconsistent finisher
AARON PEIRSOL--World champ in the 200 back, he could be the
next Lenny Krayzelburg