Phelps reaches watershed in quest for greatness

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It was not the most auspicious start to a swimming career. Michael Phelps took to the pool at an early age, but at seven years old he had a problem. "I hated putting my face under the water," he said. "My sisters, Hillary and Whitney, helped me out with swimming when I was younger. Whitney said once she held me under the water. From then on, I started using goggles and that helped me."

It was not the most auspicious start to a swimming career. Michael Phelps took to the pool at an early age, but at seven years old he had a problem. "I hated putting my face under the water," he said. "My sisters, Hillary and Whitney, helped me out with swimming when I was younger. Whitney said once she held me under the water. From then on, I started using goggles and that helped me."

Twelve years later, and only a year after graduating from high school, the boy from the working-class suburbs of Baltimore is on the brink of becoming the outstanding sportsman of the Olympic Games. He will compete in up to eight events and the talk for more than a year has been of emulating the historic feat of his fellow countryman, Mark Spitz, who won seven gold medals at the Munich Olympics in 1972. Phelps' sponsors, Speedo, will pay him a $1m (£540,000) bonus if he can equal or break Spitz's record.

Not that Phelps himself will ever admit publicly to having such a goal. When he met the press here, he repeated what has become his mantra. "My first goal is to get one gold," he said. "I came back from Sydney with none. A gold medal is the biggest thing in sport and my number one goal is to get one and take it from there.

"I wouldn't be disappointed if I only won one gold. That's my goal and I'll stick with that until I accomplish it. I would be satisfied with one gold medal. How many people in the world have one gold medal?"

Four years ago in Sydney, when at the age of 15 and on his first trip abroad he became the youngest American male swimmer for 68 years to compete at the Olympics, Phelps finished fifth in the 200m final, won by Ian Thorpe. The contest between Phelps and the great Australian, who should meet in the final of the same event on Monday night, promises to be one of the highlights of the Games.

The progress Phelps has made in the intervening four years has been phenomenal. Early in 2001, at the age of just 15 years and nine months, he became the youngest swimmer to break a world record, in the 200m butterfly. Within months he had won his first world title, in the same event, and was named America's swimmer of the year. However, it was in Barcelona last year that Phelps gave notice of his potential to become the greatest swimmer of all time. In winning four gold medals and two silvers, he became the first swimmer ever to break five world records at one meeting.

One of the most remarkable features of Phelps' career is the fact that he is so proficient in all four swimming strokes, butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. Since Phelps was 11 years old, his coach, Bob Bowman, has always insisted that he should keep working at all disciplines. He is consequently the outstanding favourite to win both the medley events, but he is also the world's best butterfly swimmer and among the best freestylers.

Thorpe, who is more of a freestyle specialist, holds the world record at 200m and it will be a surprise if that mark is not broken in Monday's final. The race should feature the three fastest men in history - Thorpe, the Dutchman Pieter van Hoogenband and another Australian, Grant Hackett, a former world record holder - as well as Phelps. Some expected Phelps to duck the challenge of taking on Thorpe at his best event, but the American is relishing the prospect and says he has always wanted to race his 21-year-old rival in a freestyle contest.

Allied to a single-minded determination to succeed - he takes particular pride in the fact that he trains 365 days of the year - Phelps also has great physical attributes. He is 6ft 4in tall and has size 14 feet and a huge armspan to power him through the water. His recovery time is also phenomenally quick, enabling him to swim several races over a short period of time.

While Phelps himself talks little about his home life, the amateur psychiatrists suggest that he took to swimming as an escape from an unsettled early upbringing in Townson, on the edge of Baltimore.

His mother, Debbie, a schoolteacher, and his father, Fred, a Maryland state trooper, separated when he was seven. Phelps and his two sisters joined the North Baltimore Aquatics Club. Whitney had a promising international career curtailed by injury.

Yet Phelps hardly gives the impression of being a mixed-up kid. Indeed, were he not such a remarkable sportsman, he would be seen as a typical American teenager just out of high school. He likes baseball, his favourite food includes pretzels, lasagne and waffle cones filled with French vanilla ice cream, and he thought Austin Powers was "awesome" when he went to the cinema recently.

"I play video games a lot," he added. "I go to Best Buy a lot. I like going and looking at all the stuff that is way expensive. We went the other day and saw this TV that was $13,000. It's just fun going in and looking at all of these high-priced electronics."

He loves rap music. DMX and Eminem are particular favourites. He says whatever he has just been listening to goes round his head during races.

His one long-held superstition is to have a can of clam chowder in his room when he is away at competition. Several years ago a friend gave him a can of what was then his favourite food as a good luck charm and it now goes everywhere with him.

Phelps takes fame in his stride, adorning the covers of glossy American magazines and happily endorsing the products of a host of major companies. He admits he enjoys the money, but says he also feels a sense of responsibility to his sport.

"When he became pro, one request he made when picking an agent was he wanted to elevate the sport of swimming," his mother said. "He said: 'I want people to embrace the sport of swimming'. Michael would love the Americans to embrace swimming the way Australians do."

If he can at least go close to breaking Spitz's record, Phelps might just achieve that aim. Is it a possibility? "I wouldn't say that anything is impossible," Phelps said. "In 1980, everyone said that no one could beat the Russians in ice hockey. But the USA did it. Nothing is impossible."

Going for gold phelps' challenge in Athens

100m butterfly

Ian Crocker, a fellow American, is likely to win gold. Crocker beat his own world record at the recent US Olympic trials, with Phelps in second place.

200m freestyle

Potentially the outstanding race of the Games as Phelps takes on Ian Thorpe, the world record holder, and the next two fastest men in history, Pieter van Hoogenband and Grant Hackett. Any medal would be an achievement for Phelps.

200m butterfly

Phelps, the world champion, should take gold in what is one of his outstanding events. The defending gold medallist, Tom Malchow, has been hampered by a worrying shoulder injury.

200m individual medley

Phelps set a world record in winning the world championships last year and will start as the outstanding favourite.

400m individual medley

This event provided another of Phelps' 2003 world titles and world records. His closest rival, the Hungarian Laszlo Cseh, has a foot injury.

4 x 100m freestyle relay

The Americans have remarkable strength in depth and Eddie Reese, the US head coach, says that Phelps' place in the team is by no means assured.

4 x 200m freestyle relay

This is the one relay in which Phelps' place looks guaranteed, but the Australians are the clear favourites to retain their Olympic title.

4 x 100m medley relay

US gold looks all but assured, but will Phelps be part of the team? He may have to beat Crocker in the 100m butterfly final to earn a place.