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Original Issue

Spitz Take U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps could win more medals in Athens than some guy named Mark--if he can just decide which of his many strokes to unleash

As Michael Phelps narrowly missed breaking his 12th world record
at the Spring National swimming championships in Orlando last
week, his coach, Bob Bowman, stood at the edge of the pool,
biting his program and pondering how his 18-year-old protege's
brilliance makes life so complicated for both of them. Phelps had
just won the 200-meter backstroke in 1:55.30, the second-fastest
time in history and just .15 of a second off the world record set
by Aaron Peirsol of the U.S. two years ago. Not a bad showing,
considering that the event may be Phelps's ninth best and did not
appear to be a race he would swim at the Athens Olympics. "This
makes it real interesting," Bowman said, scratching his head
after the race. "How does he not swim it this summer?"

The more pressing question might be, How does he? Phelps's
mastery of yet another event creates a potential logistical
nightmare. His chief sponsor, Speedo, is offering him a $1
million bonus if he can match Mark Spitz's 1972 feat of winning
seven gold medals, but the 2003 grad of Towson (Md.) High has a
chance to surpass Spitz. Phelps is expected to enter eight
events, seven in which he'd be a prohibitive favorite to win a
medal: three relays, the 100 and 200 butterflies and the 200 and
400 individual medleys. Before his eye-opening performance in
Orlando, the 200-meter freestyle was thought to be the logical
choice as the eighth event. Phelps is the world's fourth best in
the event but it would be his only final on Aug. 16. If he swims
in the 200 back, an event in which he would be a medal favorite,
he will have three races in an hour on Aug. 19: the finals of the
200 back and 200 individual medley and the semifinals of the 100

Of course any swimmer would love to have Phelps's problem. In
August he became the first male swimmer to win five races at the
Summer Nationals, and he equaled that haul in Orlando. His 20
career U.S. titles are the most of any active male swimmer, and
he doesn't turn 19 until June 30. "I don't think we've seen
anything like him," says U.S. backstroker Lenny Krayzelburg, a
triple gold medalist at the 2000 Olympics. "Nobody's this good in
everything. There is an aura about him around the pool."

A polite, sometimes playful teenager (he likes to sneak up on
teammates and make weird faces at them) who has a love of cars,
video games and hip-hop, Phelps comports himself with cool
confidence on the pool deck and holds to demanding standards.
Last Saturday, Phelps won the 200 individual medley by nearly 10
meters. His time, 1:56.80, was 1.36 seconds faster than anyone
else has ever swum the event, but .86 of a second off his world
record. "My freestyle is really off," he said afterward. "This
race tells me I need to go back and start training again."

On heavy training days Phelps swims up to 20,000 meters in double
sessions. On a lighter day, such as Feb. 7, the day before he
flew to Orlando, he swam 16 100-meter sprints (the first 50
meters a second or so off his race pace, the second half at race
pace, with only a 30-second break between sprints). The
self-flagellation is because Phelps hates to lose. At the world
championships last year he finished second to teammate Ian
Crocker in the 100 butterfly. After Swimming World put Crocker on
its cover, Phelps taped it to his bedroom wall for motivation.

Bowman is also a perfectionist. After the Spring Nationals, he
spoke of Phelps's slow starts in Orlando and the lack of balance
in his freestyle technique. "When Michael breathes to the right,
he doesn't come back far enough to the left," Bowman said. "I'm
splitting hairs here, but at most meets I'd give him an A or an
A-plus. This was an A-minus. We have a lot of work ahead, a lot
of races."

Phelps's next major race will be at the Olympic trials in Long
Beach, Calif., in July. He has qualified and registered for 11
races, but he won't swim in all of them. After he qualifies he'll
decide which events will make up his run at history in Athens.
"Nothing is impossible now," Phelps said after last week's
200-meter backstroke final. "Nothing is off the table."

--Brian Cazeneuve


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