Michael Phelps: The biggest splash

America's swimming phenomenon Michael Phelps is focused on ensuring that he makes the greatest splash the Olympics have ever seen over the next few days, writes James Lawton in Beijing

Michael Phelps, the quiet American in a straggly Fu Man Choo beard who may be just a few days away from becoming the greatest Olympian of all time, has claimed another distinction on the eve of the Games which, like no other in history, promise to spill beyond the boundaries of the swimming pool and the running track.

On a day of rising tumult and controversy beneath a returning smog haze, the 23-year-old from Baltimore announced that he is indeed the super-swimmer apart, the man operating entirely on his own terms.

"You guys are the ones talking about records, I'm the one sitting here knowing what my goal is," he said. "I'm just going to do what I have to do, and I'm very happy about this and my situation.

"I'm not making pressure for myself. I'm not getting involved in anything that will take me away from anything that I have worked for very hard all these years."

He is spending most of his time away from the training pool in a dormitory with five team-mates. It is an existence no more starry, at least for a week or so, than that of an infantryman in the People's Liberation Army.

One day this week he played cards around the kitchen table for hour upon hour.

On another he watched one film after another. You see, there is nothing to do here but work and then while away the hours before attempting to make one of the most dramatic statements sport has ever known.

No, he didn't know the captain of the American women's swimming team Amanda Beard had courted expulsion by waving a poster depicting her naked while protesting against the Chinese fur industry at the gates of the Olympic village... or that another compatriot, the speed skating gold medallist Joey Cheek had had his visa withdrawn after announcing his plans to attack China's policy in Darfur.

He didn't know a team of Anglo-American protesters had been rounded up after raising a banner on behalf of Tibet in the shadow of the Birds' Nest stadium which tomorrow will draw a television audience of more than a billion for an opening ceremony that is tipped to be the most extravagant, and breathtaking, statement of national pride ever seen.

These are not his concerns. He will not attend the ceremony. He didn't in Athens four years ago. He will be sleeping, seamlessly he imagines, in preparation for the great task of his life.

All Michael Phelps knows, he made clear in a series of laconic statements about an ambition that is as unadorned as Amanda Beard's protest techniques, is his ability to smash fellow American Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals achieved in the Munich pool 36 years ago.

His hometown newspaper, the Baltimore Sun, describe him as "rigidly focused". It is a nice euphemism for obsession which his coach Bob Bowman says may be unprecedented.

"I'm here to compete in the best swimming facility I have ever seen," said Phelps. "I've had several trips here and each time I've been so impressed. I imagine the stands filled with people and I can't wait to compete.

"I have done my work and I know what I can do and I'm all set. I haven't talked to Mark about his record but he was at the trials and he wished me the best. I haven't said anything about breaking records but I'm the only one who knows my goals. I had some disappointment in Athens four years ago [when he won a mere six golds] but I was satisfied that I had competed well, that my effort was good, and now I feel stronger and more committed than ever before."

Inevitably he was asked about drugs, a probability that had increased even more when he was joined by the remarkable Dara Torres, who has qualified for her fifth Olympics at the age of 41 and is swimming faster than ever before. Torres winces when the questions come in – and says, "It is too bad some athletes don't have a conscience and say if they win that they are doing it in the right way. For my part, I have gone beyond the normal demands of testing. There are samples of my urine and my blood going back years. I have worked for this and for me age is just a number."

Phelps sails past the question so easily he might be employing the condor swing span which eats up an Olympic pool.

"It does not concern me," he said, "because I can only control what I do. What others do is for them to deal with. I know I'm clean. That's all that matters to me."

Does anything touch this man about to besiege the Olympics with potentially historic force? It turns out that there is. It is his 24-year-old team-mate Eric Shanteau (pictured right), who has postponed treatment for testicular cancer until he flies home from here. Shanteau told his team-mates when they gathered for training in Palo Alto, California a few weeks ago.

Phelps, the man so preoccupied with his own challenge in the water, admits the news carried him back from beyond that line which separates the imperatives of sport from those that can spring at a man without warning in the business of normal life.

Shanteau told Phelps and his team-mates how it was when he got the news. He said: "Two questions leapt into my mind. One was 'why me?' The other was 'Why now?'" Why did it come at almost precisely the time he made the Olympic team, the great ambition of his life. "My first instinct," recalled Shanteau, "was to reach over the table and punch the doctor who was giving me the news.

"Then he agreed that as the problem was not developing too quickly I could go to the Olympics."

But it was the swimmer's decision and the fact was noted by Phelps. "I lost my grandmother through cancer," he said, "and that told me that there are greater challenges and trials than the ones that come in sport." It is a revelation he has concealed well enough on the road to Beijing. The chances are, you had to believe yesterday, it will stay largely under cover for at least a few more days.

King over the water: Michael Phelps factfile

*Born 30 June 1985 (age 23)

Baltimore, Maryland, United States

*Height 6ft 4in (1.93m)

*Weight 195lb (88kg)

*Educated University of Michigan

*Events entered for at 2008 Beijing Olympics

200m Freestyle

100m Butterfly

200m Butterfly

200m Individual Medley

400m Individual Medley

100m Freestyle Relay

200m Freestyle Relay

200m Medley Relay

*Medals won at 2004 Athens Olympics:

Gold 100m butterfly

200m butterfly

200m individual medley

400m individual medley 4x100m medley relay

4x200m freestyle relay

Bronze 4x100m freestyle relay

200m freestyle

News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
filmIdris Elba responds to James Bond rumours on Twitter
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Sport
Wayne Rooney warms up ahead of the English Premier League football match between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United at White Hart Lane
football
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
News
Danielle George is both science professor and presenter
people
News
i100
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015