Thirty minutes before every race Michael Phelps climbs from the
warmup pool, dries himself, changes into a racing suit and slips
a set of stereo headphones over his ears, where they remain until
he steps onto the starting block. When he began this routine at
age 12, the music was Green Day. Last summer when he won five
gold medals at the world swimming championships in Barcelona, it
was Eminem. Yet the artist is not that important because the
songs are just the soundtrack to a ritual of self-absorption that
leaves pressures and opponents hopelessly walled off. "I've
always been fortunate in that I've been able to put myself in
my own zone and relax," says Phelps. "It comes naturally. I'm
lucky to be that way."
More than he can imagine. In every Olympics there is a Chosen
One, an American athlete designated for stardom long before the
Games and guaranteed wealth and celebrity if he can perform as
expected. In the past it's been Bruce Jenner, Carl Lewis, Matt
Biondi, Marion Jones. All succeeded, but some did not succeed
enough. It's a perilous position, being the Chosen One. For 2004
in Athens, Phelps, who will turn 19 on June 30, plays that role.
Phelps's stature was assured last summer with his dominant
performance in Barcelona, where he set world records in the
200-and 400-meter individual medleys and the 100-and 200-meter
butterfly. (He set his 100 record in the semifinals but was
beaten in the butterfly final by teammate Ian Crocker, who
bettered Phelps's mark.) Phelps also swam on two
gold-medal-winning relays. He was no upstart superstar, having
made the 2000 Olympic team at 15. "By the time I went to [last
July's] worlds," says Phelps, "I realized something could
Others may have realized it even earlier. Phelps is 6'4", with a
condoresque wingspan 2 1/2 inches greater than his height,
spidery hands and feet and a long, muscular torso. It is a
near-perfect swimmer's body. "He did very well in the gene pool,"
says Bob Bowman, the coach who pushes Phelps through punishing
20,000-meter training days.
The standard for all Chosen Ones, of course, is Mark Spitz, who
swam to seven gold medals (in seven world-record times) in the
1972 Olympics. Neither Phelps nor Bowman is saying how many
events Phelps will swim in Athens--or which ones--but Bowman said
recently, "Some are pretty obvious." Phelps will probably swim
the three individual events in which he holds the world record,
one or two other events, along with three relays.
Phelps's mind will serve him well under Olympic-year pressure.
Between training sessions recently in Baltimore (five minutes
from the row house where he lives with his mother, Debbie), he
flopped on a couch in the pool's child care center and talked
emotionally about video game consoles, but with measured caution
about Athens. "My goal is one Olympic gold medal," he said. "Not
many people in this world can say, 'I'm an Olympic gold
medalist.'" That is, of course, a stance designed to deflect
pressure. More indicative of reality is that he has written his
goal on a piece of paper: Swim personal bests in every event. And
a better measure of his confidence is that when he heard
Australian star Ian Thorpe quoted as saying that nobody will ever
do what Spitz did, "It fired me up," says Phelps.
On most days, however, the fire is banked, and Phelps simply
loses himself in his lane, churning out endless laps on a long
road to Athens, swimming in the present, living in a bubble and
saving his passion for when it is needed most.
COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY TO THE WINE-DARK SEA Phelps's Barcelona triumphs have set thestage for next year's Athens Games.