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
Thursday 07 August 2008
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 or that another compatriot, the speed skating gold medallist Joey Cheek had had his visa withdrawn after announcing his plans to attack China's policy in Darfur.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 Individual Medley
400m Individual Medley
100m Freestyle Relay
200m Freestyle Relay
200m Medley Relay
*Medals won at 2004 Athens Olympics:
Gold 100m butterfly
200m individual medley
400m individual medley 4x100m medley relay
4x200m freestyle relay
Bronze 4x100m freestyle relay
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