Michael Phelps wasflipping through TV channels in his Melbourne hotel room last Friday when, forthe first time all week, he was stopped cold. Phelps had come across Pardon theInterruption, and hosts Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser were yapping--inbetween Final Four forecasts and spring training rants--about Phelps's historicperformance at the world swimming championships. Where did he belong on thesporting landscape? Was he elevating his niche sport to watercooler status?"Awesome," said Phelps, a sports-TV junkie. "I watch these guys allthe time, and now they're talking about swimming."
Phelps left nodoubt that he deserved the attention: For one majestic week he redefinedswimming standards with the greatest performance in history. He won seven goldmedals and broke five world records, most by enormous margins. Only the U.S.team's unlikely disqualification in the heats of the medley relay (afterbutterflyer Ian Crocker left the blocks .04 of a second too soon) kept Phelpsfrom an eighth gold, which would have surpassed the record set by Mark Spitz atthe 1972 Munich Olympics.
In swimmingparlance Phelps wasn't so much raising a bar as he was "beating theline," the superimposed red string that travels along TV screens and arenascoreboards indicating a world-record pace during races. Crowd noise crescendoswhen swimmers' fingertips are anywhere near the moving line. "Michael iseven beating the line with his bloody feet!" Australian veteran GrantHackett marveled last week. "He is just superhuman. We won't see anythinglike this again."
Phelps won fiveindividual events in Melbourne, one more than Spitz did in 1972. At 21 he hasearned the most gold medals in world-championship history (17), adding to theeight Olympic medals (six of them gold) that he took home from Athens in 2004.In a sport that often measures progress in hundredths of seconds, Phelpslowered his own world records in the 200-meter butterfly by a gaudy 1.62seconds (to 1:52.09--nearly nine seconds faster than Spitz's gold medal time in'72), in the 200 individual medley by .86 of a second (1:54.98) and in the 400IM by 2.02 seconds (4:06.22). He swam 1.34 seconds faster than his personalbest to pare .20 off Olympic great Ian Thorpe's world mark in the 200 free."I felt like an age-group swimmer," Phelps said in wonder after the 200fly. "The last time I dropped my times by whole seconds, I was 12."
In the 100-flyfinal on Saturday, the 6'4" Phelps outtouched world-record holder Crockerat the wall in a near replay of the 2004 Olympic finish. "It's hard to slaythe dragon," Crocker said afterward. Phelps, who strained muscles in hisback in late 2004 and postponed plans to incorporate weight training into hisworkouts, credits the relentless routine of squats and plyometrics that hestarted last April for helping his legs maintain propulsion in the back halvesof races in Melbourne. "It makes a huge difference being able to have morestrength and speed," says Phelps. "It used to kill at the end of races.Now it doesn't hurt as much underwater."
Over the last yearand a half Phelps has also matured, enrolling in classes at Michigan andbecoming his own toughest critic. Last October after oversleeping and arrivinglate to a practice, he had to face his coach of nine years, Bob Bowman. Bowmanwas ready to read the riot act until he realized he wasn't nearly as angry atPhelps as Phelps was at himself. The inseparable, headstrong pair has gone sixmonths without a quarrel, which is surely another record.
There was morethan one lane to success at the worlds, however. In contrast to Phelps'scalculated regimen, Laure Manaudou, the 20-year-old French phenom who won the200- and 400-meter freestyles, lives and swims by feel. After breaking theworld record in the 200 free, she held up her left palm, on which she hadwritten love as a message to her boyfriend, Italian swimmer Luca Marin. She hasbeen on the cover of the French weekly magazine Paris Match three times and hasused nontraining days to drop in on the Cannes Film Festival, Formula One racesor Marin's home in Italy. "I swim better when I'm in love," she saidlast week. (Manaudou also wore her feelings on her sleeve at the AthensOlympics, where she donned a T-shirt with her boyfriend's name scribbled on it.Alas, that was two beaux before Marin.)
The worlds stampedManaudou as a potential star at next year's Beijing Games along with severalothers, including fun-loving Floridian Ryan Lochte (who ended compatriot AaronPeirsol's seven-year winning streak in the 200 back), Australia's Libby Lenton(five gold medals, the most of any woman in Melbourne) and, of course, Phelps,who in August 2008 will try to win Olympic gold in all his events. For thisweek's exhibition dual meet in Sydney between the U.S. and Australian teams,Lenton had a not-unreasonable suggestion: "To be fair, let's have threeteams," she said. "America, Australia and Michael Phelps."
One for the Books
Watch Michael Phelps set a world record in the 200freestyle.
ONLY AT SI.COM/PHELPS
EXTRA KICK Weight training has helped Phelps boost his leg propulsion in the back halves of races.
YESSS! Manaudou (left) set a world mark in the 200 free, as did Phelps (far right) & Co. in the 4√ó200 relay.