Swimming: Thorpe's quest for seven golds threatened by prodigy Phelps

Multi-talented Australian faces serious challenge from 18-year-old US sensation at the World Championships

In 1972 Mark Spitz wrote himself into sporting history, winning seven gold medals at the Munich Olympics. Ian Thorpe thinks no one will ever do it again. So why is the Australian "Thorpedo" fishing for a seventh event at these World Championships to add to the record six golds that he won at the worlds in Japan two years ago?

For Thorpe it is simple. "I like to challenge myself and I like to try new events. I don't care if I win three golds or 10. I just want to stand up and give my best whenever and wherever I swim."

In three lengthy interviews with Thorpe over the last year, I am genuinely convinced that he is not motivated or fixated on seven golds. But the rest of the world is. The fact is that this is swimming's holy grail. If he did it, Thorpe would cement his name in the sporting consciousness along with the likes of Pele, Bradman, Woods, Jordan and Gretzky.

It is staggering to think that Thorpe is still only 20 years old. Already he has won eight world gold medals, three Olympic golds and set 17 world records. His size 15 feet, massive frame and media-friendly demeanour have helped propel the Australian into the glittering firmament, where he lunches with presidents and attends film and fashion premières at the personal invitation of Tom Cruise or Giorgio Armani.

But winning seven golds is going to be extremely difficult, which is why Thorpe will never claim he can do it. The 200 metres and 400m freestyle and 4x200m free relay should bring three. But the Americans will want to regain their status as the No 1 nation in the 4x100m freestyle and 4x100m medley relays after the Australians assumed the position two years ago. The Australians are weakened by the absence of Michael Klim, but even it they do triumph again, the final two medals are far less certain.

Two years ago, Thorpe won gold in the 800m, but this year has dropped the event from his programme in favour of the 100m, where he came fourth. For once, he will not be the favourite. That honour falls to the man who surprised all of Australia at the Sydney Olympics after beating their home-town hero in the 200m freestyle. Pieter van den Hoogenband may not do so again in the longer event in Barcelona, but is the world record holder and Olympic champion in the 100m.

Without a world gold medal in his collection, the Dutchman is unlikely to allow Thorpe, Alex Popov, or any of the latest crop of American sprinters deny him his first. But if Thorpe somehow negotiates his way past Van den Hoogenband, there is another, even tougher opponent waiting.

Which brings us to the joker in the pack, the 200m individual medley. This is a new event for Thorpe, and, on paper, it would appear logical for it to be included. He is practically unbeatable on three of the four lengths, but his breaststroke could prove the weak link. Not so, for his main rival, America's answer to Thorpe and the latest boy wonder, Michael Phelps.

Phelps has only just turned 18 and is the sensation of US swimming. Over there, it is Phelps, not Thorpe, that many think will win seven gold medals at the Olympics next year. Phelps announced himself to the world by becoming the youngest world record holder, when aged just 15. Since then, the boy from Baltimore, Maryland, has set about rewriting the records that Thorpe does not already own. First in the 200m butterfly, then the 200m and 400m medley; records which he is breaking every time he starts a race.

His coach, Bob Bowman, thinks Phelps has the potential to lay claim to the world's greatest swimmer. "I think he handles the attention and the comparisons with a lot of perspective for someone who is 18 years old. Michael has achieved some things, but nothing that will really make his career complete yet.

"Obviously for Michael's career to be validated there has to be Olympic gold medals, and hopefully these upcoming World Championships will be a stepping stone to that goal."

Phelps put a marker down three weeks ago, a day before his 18th birthday, when he broke the 200m medley world record, bettering a time that had stood for nine years. He lowered the mark by almost a quarter of a second in a windy, outdoor pool in Santa Clara, California, wearing regular trunks instead of a quicker body-suit. Phelps did not even bother to shave his body hair for the race, and had a work-out scheduled the next day. Phelps will also contest the 100m butterfly and the three relays in his own bid for a magnificent seven.

Both will be wearing the body-suit in Barcelona and on this point Thorpe, for all his maturity and wisdom, submitted his entry for Colemanball of the year, when, speaking at the Paris World Cup meet earlier this year, he said: "When you dive in, you get a very wet feeling," before explaining the advantages of the all-over body-suit.

For all their similarities, though, the two are startlingly different. Thorpe is an inch shorter but over two stones heavier and it is the Australian who has made the bigger splash. While Thorpe rubs shoulders with the stars, Phelps prefers putting a new sub-woofer in his Cadillac. With only one world gold medal to his name, and none from an Olympics, the young American has some catching up to do.

Thorpe versus Phelps over the 200m medley will take place on Friday, and the winner could be on the verge of their seventh gold medal in the final race of the competition, the 4x100m medley relay. If this is the case, all hell will break out in Barcelona next Sunday night and will hit fever pitch in Athens next year.

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