In the second week of June, a high school swimming pool in
suburban Colorado Springs has been transformed into a soundstage
as Michael Phelps films a commercial for AT&T Wireless during a
break from 17 days of intense altitude swimming at the U.S.
Olympic Training Center. One day training and the next day on
television. Such is life on the cusp of Olympic history. In
gathering darkness the 18-year-old orders a double cheeseburger
from a catering truck outside the pool and then punches up an NBA
playoff score on his BlackBerry. "Pistons by one, second quarter,
yeah!" he says. His brown, tousled hair bounces as he walks, and
his baggy shorts hang below his knees.
The BlackBerry, a new acquisition, is one of the gadgets that
drive him almost as much as swimming fast. "I just got an iPod,"
he says enthusiastically. "I put 850 songs on it, and it's sooo
much better than carrying around a bunch of CDs." Asked whether
his songs were downloaded legally or illegally, Phelps says,
"I'll keep eating now," and stuffs half a burger into his mouth.
He likes to call himself a normal teenager. And he is--except for
the millions of dollars in endorsement contracts, the shiny
Cadillac Escalade, the starring role in NBC Olympic ads and the
once-in-a-generation athletic talent. If all goes perfectly for
Phelps in Athens, he will win eight gold medals, breaking swimmer
Mark Spitz's Olympic record of seven and tying the alltime medal
record for one Games held by Soviet gymnast Alexander Dityatin.
If Phelps has an off meet, he is still almost certain to take
home more medals than any of the Games' 10,000 other competitors.
The sport has rarely seen an athlete so gifted. Phelps, who's
6'5" with a pterodactyl's wingspan of 76 1/2 inches, is blessed
with almost unprecedented versatility--he is exceptional at
butterfly, backstroke, freestyle and individual medley, composed
of those three plus the breaststroke--and has an instinctive
grasp of the medium in which he competes. "He just feels the
water," says training partner and former Auburn All-America Kevin
Clements. "He knows exactly where to put his hand so that it
doesn't make any bubbles. Every stroke is perfect."
Even fellow world-record holders marvel at him. Says Olympic
favorite Aaron Peirsol, the only person ever to have swum the
200-meter backstroke faster than Phelps, "He has a gift, man. A
physical and mental gift. To be able to do all those different
strokes, obviously his brain functions differently from most
As Phelps stands on the doorstep of Olympic history, he has
already become part competitor and part commodity. If he wins as
many as seven golds, swimwear manufacturer Speedo will pay him a
$1 million bonus, a pledge that was included in the six-year
contract Phelps signed and made public last November. The bonus
has become the cornerstone of an aggressive campaign conceived by
Phelps's agent, Peter Carlisle, in concert with Carlisle's
business partners, to ensure the swimmer's fame and marketability
even before he steps onto the pool deck in Athens. "It's
unfortunate that in American sports you are measured by your
performance not just on the field or in the pool but also at the
bank," says Stu Isaac, senior vice president of team sales and
marketing for Speedo. "But there's no doubt that the bonus and
the publicity behind it have been critical to bringing Michael to
The Games will not decide whether Phelps is wealthy or poor. His
sponsor deals (Argent Mortgage, Visa and PowerBar, in addition to
Speedo and AT&T Wireless) guarantee him an annual income
comfortably into seven figures through 2009. (Speedo first signed
him in 2001, when he was 16; he became the company's
youngest-ever male endorser.) The Olympics will decide, however,
whether Phelps becomes more than just an outstanding swimmer with
a sharp agent. They will test whether he can transcend his sport
and become one of the Olympics' alltime greats.
They will also measure his ability to take the biggest athletic
spectacle on earth and carry it on his broad shoulders. The drug
scandal that has engulfed track and field has thrust swimming to
the forefront of the Games. "The BALCO case has been awful for
track, because companies won't touch that sport right now," says
Evan Morgenstein, agent for more than two dozen world-class
swimmers, "but it's been a windfall for swimming."
NBC began promoting Phelps months ago, putting his dripping face
on the screen during the Kentucky Derby and golf's U.S. Open.
"Let's face it," says Spitz, no stranger to the vagaries of
Olympic fame. "Michael is NBC's meal ticket."
Phelps first opened eyes by making the 2000 Olympic team just 10
weeks after his 15th birthday and by breaking the 200-meter
butterfly record seven months later to become the youngest male
world-record holder in history. He soon became the first swimmer
to win U.S. titles in backstroke, butterfly, freestyle and both
individual medleys. But what lifted him into truly rarefied air
was his performance at last summer's world championships in
Barcelona, where he set five world records and won six medals,
four of them gold.
That tour de force not only earned Phelps the 2003 Sullivan Award
as the nation's best amateur athlete but also raised the
possibility of his challenging Spitz's Olympic record--a topic
that has shadowed Phelps for the past year. "His name comes up in
every interview, guaranteed," Phelps says of Spitz, whom he had
never met until last month's U.S. trials. "That's O.K. He was the
man, the icon."
The parallels between the two swimmers are limited. In 1972 Spitz
was a former college superstar (at Indiana) who had already won
two gold medals in Olympic competition and had a reputation for
cockiness. Phelps is just a year out of Towson (Md.) High (he has
deferred his college plans) and finished fifth in the 200
butterfly in Sydney. While he does not lack for confidence or
style, he tempers his public image with a big kid's mellow cool.
Moreover, Phelps's Olympic swimming schedule is more varied, and
arguably more difficult, than Spitz's was in '72. "Mark swam the
freestyle and butterfly, which are the two most technically
similar strokes, and he swam 100 and 200 meters, which are
virtually the same event," says 1976 Olympic champion John Naber.
"Also, the U.S. relays were almost guaranteed to win three gold
medals in those days."
Phelps will use all four strokes to cover distances from 100 to
400 meters, and two of the three relay teams on which he's
expected to compete won't even be clear favorites. He could swim
as many as 20 races (Spitz swam 14) in eight days and enter five
individual events (Spitz swam four). On Aug. 19 Phelps will have
to swim the 100-meter butterfly semifinals just 21 minutes after
he finishes the 200 individual medley final. And whereas Spitz
entered the Munich Games as the world-record holder in all of his
events, Phelps holds world marks in three of his (the 200 and 400
IMs and the 200 butterfly) and is ranked No. 2 in the world in
the others (100 fly and 200 freestyle). "It's going to be a tough
Olympics program for Michael," says Ian Thorpe, Australia's
swimming superstar, who'll face Phelps in multiple races.
Spitz knows that better than anyone. "I think Michael is capable
of winning seven, just like I was capable of winning seven," he
says. "But a lot of things had to happen just right for me. And
the U.S. relays were unquestionably stronger in 1972, relative to
the competition. I hope he does it. It would be great for the
sport and great for Michael. And it's already been great press
for me that he's trying."
Phelps has never publicly professed his desire to win seven gold
medals. In a carefully planned posture, he will admit only to
chasing one. "To stand up on that podium and hear the national
anthem would be awesome," he says. "Swimming has changed a lot
since Spitz's day. People specialize more. So for me it's win one
gold medal and after that, whatever happens, happens."
Calculated or not, that attitude befits Phelps, who is trying to
not get swept up in the trappings of fame and fortune. He has
been surrounded by the same core of close friends since he was in
fourth grade, guys like Matt Townsend (a student at Salisbury
State) and Ayo Osho (Maryland). Like Phelps, they love the Ravens
and hate the Yankees.
"We play Texas Hold 'Em but not for money," Townsend says. "We
play Xbox and PS2. Sometimes we just hang out and watch movies.
He's a great friend. There's no way anyone would know that he's
somebody famous, with all these world records." Pause. "Of course
I stayed over at his house the other night, and by the time I got
out of bed, he was already coming back from his [7 a.m.]
Fog dances across the surface of the pool, 20 minutes past sunset
in mid-June. Trees sway in the cool wind. A long day of age-group
racing is nearly finished at the Meadowbrook Swim Club in North
Baltimore when Phelps climbs atop a starting block to swim the
anchor leg of the men's open 400-meter freestyle relay, the final
event. Dozens of children and parents crowd the side of the pool
to watch the would-be Olympic hero in his final tune-up before
the U.S. trials.
He has been coming to this pool since age five. It was here that
he scampered about, begging snacks from swim moms while his two
older sisters trained and raced. It was here that he blossomed
into a prodigy at 10, crushing older swimmers yet enduring their
taunts about his outsized ears, which he tucked beneath baseball
caps--one Michigan (a school he grew up wanting to attend), one
Orioles. It was here that Phelps watched his sister Whitney, five
years older than he, rise to the favorite's role at age 15 for
the 1996 Olympic trials, only to miss the team, a disappointment
that he says left the family devastated. And it was here that his
new coach, Bob Bowman, met with divorced parents Fred and Debbie
Phelps in the fall of 1997 and told them that their 12-year-old
son could someday swim in the Olympics.
The family's devotion to the sport had started before Michael was
born. Debbie Phelps was the stay-at-home mom of two small girls
in rural Harford County, Md., on the Pennsylvania border. Fred,
her high school sweetheart and a onetime defensive back at
Fairmont State College in West Virginia, was a Maryland state
policeman and often worked swing shifts. On the recommendation of
her pediatrician, Debbie started the girls, seven-year-old Hilary
and five-year-old Whitney, swimming, and they took to it like
mermaids. Born just as the girls began to race, Michael spent
countless hours riding in the back of the family car to training
sessions and races. He started swimming when he was seven but
resisted getting his face wet, so he stuck to backstroke.
Whitney was the swimmer with early promise. She swam on a
world-championship team at 14 and was ranked No. 1 in the U.S. in
the 200 butterfly entering the 1996 Olympic trials. However, she
had been fighting soreness in her back for months before the
event. "I was telling people, 'No, it doesn't hurt,' but I was
walking around like an 80-year-old woman," she says. "But get out
of the pool? Never. You don't want to be a wimp." She finished
sixth at the trials and failed to make the team.
Michael remembers the heartbreak of his sister's crushing
disappointment. Debbie can't discuss it without crying. Hilary
says, "Nobody talks about '96. It's the elephant in the room for
It was the type of experience that could have soured the family
on supporting another child in the sport. But it did not. Later
that year Bowman was hired as coach of the North Baltimore
Aquatic Club. He inherited Michael, a short, skinny kid with
uncanny presence in the water. Within a year Bowman suggested to
Debbie and Fred that their son might someday make the Olympics
and therefore should consider dumping baseball and lacrosse.
Michael resisted. "You're ruining my life!" he told Bowman one
afternoon during eighth grade, when the coach suggested adding
morning workouts. "I'm spending 90 percent of my time at the
Bowman backed off and implemented the double sessions a year
later, when Phelps was more mature, and the work paid off. In a
preliminary swim at the spring national championships outside
Seattle in March 2000, Phelps lowered his 200 butterfly personal
best by an astonishing five seconds, to 1:59 flat. The time
instantly made him one of the fastest swimmers in the world, at
age 14. "It was the most boring environment you could imagine,"
says Bowman. "There were maybe two people in the stands. There
was no cheering. Then Michael swims 1:59. I remember walking to
my car after that swim, stopping and saying out loud, 'He's going
to make the Olympic team.' That day changed everything."
Phelps went to the 2000 Olympic trials as a dark horse in the 200
fly, and he didn't go alone. Whitney had continued to swim in
pain, just well enough to earn a scholarship to UNLV, and had
qualified in the same stroke and distance. "Good enough to
qualify, not good enough to make it anymore," she says of her
decision to pull out of the race because of a bulging disk in her
neck. But when Michael stunned the swimming world by making the
team with a second-place finish, she greeted him on the pool deck
with a lingering hug. "Huge," says Michael. "So huge."
"I just went with my feelings that day," says Whitney. "It was an
amazing thing, for a male swimmer that age to make the Olympic
team. And he's my little brother; he means the world to me."
High above the water, Debbie wept. She and Michael have always
been close, but their bond had gotten stronger after Debbie and
Fred's 1995 divorce. "She has always been there for me," says
Michael. "She's done everything. We're best friends." Last
Mother's Day morning Michael instructed Debbie to watch a TV
interview in which he emotionally described her place in his life
and ended by saying, "Thanks, Mom." When he returned to Maryland
from Colorado in mid-June, he delivered Slurpees to the office
where she works as a school administrator.
Fred Phelps, who retired in February after 28 years, says,
"Michael and I were close when he was little. We went to games
together, we hit baseballs, did all the things that fathers and
sons do. When Debbie and I divorced, there were some tough years.
I know what it's like; my dad died when I was eight." Father and
son trade regular e-mails, but Michael says, "Right now is when I
don't need anything new in my life."
On a cold, gray morning in late December, Phelps arrived at the
Meadowbrook pool to find that Bowman had assigned him a crushing
set of 50 100-meter, kick-only sprints. Phelps climbed into the
pool and began moving slowly. Bowman shouted at him, "You might
as well not even bother!" Phelps, holding a kickboard, shouted
back at Bowman, and before long Phelps was in his Escalade,
headed back home. "I don't even remember whether I quit or got
kicked out," says Phelps.
It was a rare hiccup in a four-year plan that relied heavily on
Phelps's uncommon drive and maturity. Athletically, Phelps is a
freak, with what 1984 gold medalist Rowdy Gaines calls "the
perfect body for swimming: long arms, big hands and feet, short
legs yet long torso," and strokes that are nearly flawless. "It's
obvious he's a technical wizard," says Spitz.
On top of that, Phelps finds motivation at every turn. Since last
year's worlds he has kept on his bedroom wall a photograph of
U.S. rival Ian Crocker, who beat him in the 100-fly final and
took away his world record. When Thorpe's coach suggested last
winter that Phelps was incapable of matching Spitz's seven golds
(an opinion Thorpe has since seconded), Phelps says, "It fired me
up." Phelps is also fueled by slights from the past. Nearly two
years ago a young man approached him at a meet and congratulated
him on his accomplishments, adding, "Do you remember me? I used
to swim against you?" In fact, he was one of the 13-year-olds who
used to make fun of Phelps's big ears and skinny body.
"Sorry," Phelps said, "I don't remember you." Later he told
Hilary, "Of course I remember him. But the way he treated me,
there's no way I was going to give him the satisfaction."
Phelps and Bowman have an almost symbiotic relationship. (After
the Olympics, Phelps will move to Ann Arbor, Mich., where Bowman
was hired in April to be the Wolverines' coach.) For nearly three
years following Sydney, Bowman put Phelps through long-distance
training, sometimes more than 12 miles a day. This year the load
has lessened slightly, with greater emphasis on quality and
stroke adjustment. The results have been promising. During a
mid-June training session in Colorado Springs, Phelps swam five
200-meter frees with minimal rest, the last in a searing 1:51.9,
nearly three seconds faster than usual for a similar workout,
despite the thin air. At the trials--a meet for which he didn't
fully rest or taper--he set one world record (in the 400 IM) and
won four of the six events in which he qualified (finishing
second only to Peirsol and Crocker). "You have to be prepared to
break the world record every time you swim against him," says
Australia's Justin Norris, who expects to face Phelps in both IMs
and the 200 butterfly in Athens.
"Everything I've done for two years has pointed toward this
summer," says Phelps as he stands by the side of the pool in
Baltimore, bathed in twilight. In May the pool was drained for a
black-tie dinner at which Phelps was the guest of honor. Now he
wears a gray hoodie over sopping hair, a weary teenager with big
dreams. Athens beckons, and with it a place in Olympic history,
with one gold medal or many more.
WHY HE'S SO GOOD
Four swimming greats critique Michael Phelps's strokes
"He's a canoe with oversized oars," says 1992 fly gold medalist
Pablo Morales. "I like to say he 'holds water'--with each stroke
there's no slippage or air bubbles. He's the best example of the
latest evolution of the fly: He keeps his head low and chin down,
with less undulation of the body than we used to have. And he's
really a machine; one stroke leads to the next with no pause in
"What's not to like?" asks 1984 freestyle gold medalist Rowdy
Gaines. "His stroke is close to classic. He gets power from his
torso and hips; he has tremendous body rotation, and his hips set
up his stroke. I've never seen a swimmer with such confidence
when he walks to the blocks. He's like a shark feeding off his
"He's already much better than I was," says 1976 Olympic champ
John Naber. "His reach is remarkable, he has good hyperextension
in his elbows, and he maximizes the time his hands are
underwater. His turns, pacing and body position are excellent.
His head position is so straight and steady he could balance a
full shot glass on his forehead without spilling a drop."
"This may be his fourth-best stroke, but I don't see much wrong,"
says 1960 breast gold medalist Bill Mulliken. "Some
breaststrokers come way out of the water; he stays flatter. He
keeps his hips up and doesn't waste motion. He needs to clap his
feet together on his kick, however, to finish his stroke."
CHASING THE RECORD
Phelps hopes to challenge these alltime-best single-Games
Alexander Dityatin, Soviet gymnast (above), 1980. The then
22-year-old from Leningrad won three gold, four silver and one
bronze and became the first male Olympic gymnast to score a 10.0
(in the vault). He won six of his medals on the same day.
Mark Spitz, U.S. swimmer, 1972 (7 gold)
Matt Biondi, U.S. swimmer, 1988 (5 gold)
Willis Lee, U.S. shooter, 1920 (5 gold)
Nikolai Andrianov, Soviet gymnast, 1976 (4 gold)
Boris Shakhlin, Soviet gymnast, 1960 (4 gold)
Lloyd Spooner, U.S. shooter, 1920 (4 gold)
Maria Gorokhovskaya, Soviet gymnast, 1952 (2 gold)
Mikhail Voronin, Soviet gymnast, 1968 (2 gold)
MOST GOLD MEDALS
Mark Spitz, U.S. swimmer (above), 1972. The then 22-year-old
from Sacramento set world records in all of his events in Munich.
Kristin Otto, East German swimmer, 1988. Otto likely would have
won a seventh gold had there been three women's relays, as there
Vitaly Scherbo, Unified Team gymnast, 1992. He was the
childhood idol of current U.S. star Paul Hamm.
Matt Biondi, U.S. swimmer, 1988
Willis Lee, U.S. shooter, 1920
Anton Heida, U.S. gymnast, 1904
Nedo Nadi, Italian fencer, 1920
Paavo Nurmi, Finnish runner, 1924
THREE WHO COULD BEAT HIM
Standing in Phelps's way is a set of talented
opponents--including a U.S. teammate
Australia, 200 free
The 21-year-old--who won three golds in Sydney and has set 22
world records since 1999--is the record holder and favorite in
the 200-meter freestyle. The Thorpedo could also face Phelps in
three relays, with the Aussies a threat to win two of those.
U.S., 100 butterfly
Maine's first Olympic swimmer, Crocker, 21, set world records in
edging Phelps in the 100 fly at the 2003 worlds and U.S. trials.
Says Crocker, who could win four medals, "Michael pushes me to
Hungary, 400 IM
The 18-year-old finished second to Phelps in this event at the
2003 worlds and is stronger than Phelps on the breaststroke leg.
Since 1988 Hungarian swimmers have won four Olympic medals (three
of them gold) in the men's and women's 400 IM.