washingtonpost.com  > Sports > Columnists > Sally Jenkins

First Hurdle Falls For the Strong, Silent Type

By Sally Jenkins
Sunday, August 15, 2004; Page E01

ATHENS

If you wander through the fish stalls of Piraeus, you will see dangling rows of calamari. They all look like Michael Phelps's torso. They have the same tensile, wavy arms, and pulpy slabs of muscle, and apparently they have the same pulse rate. Phelps's body type is not a thing that can be understood in human terms; he's an awkward but powerful creature of the deeps. From the chin up, Phelps looks like a regular and utterly decent kid, root-beer-eyed with hair combed down over his forehead. It's from the neck down that he changes species, a kid's head on a squid's body.

Phelps has spent the better part of his 19-year-old life underwater, so it's a small wonder that he seemed so out of his element standing on the pool deck, gulping air and trying to speak after breaking his own world record and winning his first Olympic gold medal Saturday night in the 400-meter individual medley. Phelps's chief mode of expression was a beautiful grin, showing his Gomer Pyle incisors.


A family afire: Michael Phelps's sister, Whitney, left, and mother, Debbie, are thrilled by his world record-breaking performance in the 400 IM. (Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)



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"I got one event down and six to go," he said.

If Phelps becomes a huge international star, as it appears he's going to, it will be entirely because of what he did in a concrete pond. It won't be because he's a prattling exhibitionist, the Anna Kournikova of swimming. It's a fact that the potentially biggest American star of the Athens Olympics is also one of its most regular-seeming and least articulate and expressive. The only thing extraordinary about Phelps is what he does, not what he says. But you know what? The greatest-evers seldom are chatterboxes. And this kid is shaping up as one of those.

What Phelps means to say with his understated one-down-six-to-go remark is that he's attempting to equal a historical threshold in his sport, Mark Spitz's seven gold medals in Munich in 1972. It's an audacious goal, but after watching his performance in the 400 IM, and observing how utterly at ease he seems in Athens, it seems a reachable one.

Phelps is apparently as nerveless as he is boneless; he exhibited hardly a sign of tension as he prepared for the opening race of these Games. His first gold medal was said to be a foregone conclusion, the world record of 4 minutes 8.41 seconds that he set at the U.S. Olympic trials just a few weeks ago making him the heavy favorite in the 400 IM. But there is really no such thing in a sport in which pressure can make the water heavy, and world champions can suddenly become tight and mysteriously slow-limbed.

No matter how overwhelming of a favorite he was, Phelps's first medal attempt was surely a difficult one, for this reason: You can't win all those other medals without winning this one first. It was the medal he had to win to make all those others attainable. From that standpoint it cannot have been easy -- and yet it seemed to be. He went to sleep Friday night at 9:15, watching the film "Miracle," about the U.S. ice hockey team's upset gold medal. "And slept well," he said.

Phelps seemed relaxed to the point of drowsiness in his morning heat. He skimmed smoothly through the water to qualify for the eight-man final, with a time of 4:13.29, well off his world record, conserving himself. "I'm glad the meet is finally here," he said afterward. "I felt comfortable and in control. I'm not worried about time. I just want to get my hand on the wall first."

As dusk fell, Phelps took to the pool deck for the final in his baggy oversized white warmups, and large silver headphones. Looming above him were the white butterfly wings of the open air stadium. He undressed, stretched, and then stood on the starting block in Lane 4, exuding his signature aura, which is an interesting combination of alertness and oblivion.

He leaned down until he touched his toes, bent double. His body was folded in half in what should have been an impossible angle for a creature with a spine. He was so supple it was hard to see how his swimsuit stayed on him.

Halfway down the pool on the first lap, the butterfly stroke, Phelps was in the lead. At the first split he was on world record pace, and he stayed there the whole way. The rest of the field plowed through the water looking at his feet. After he touched the wall, Phelps bobbed to the surface and stared at the board. The Gomer grin began to spread.

There are a lot of talentless people in America, talking constantly. Paris Hilton. Donald Trump. Phelps just is what he is, perfectly 19, a young man whose personality is still somewhat submerged and who doesn't try to be anything he isn't. He doesn't act any older or smarter than he really is, doesn't try to reply to questions he cannot answer. You probably wish your nephew was more like him, instead of a smart aleck who always has something to say.

There's something reassuring about Phelps's quietude. It's soothing. It's a quality that will stand him in good stead during the tumult and steadily ratcheting attention of the Olympics. Phelps managed to remain perfectly loose and unselfconscious as he went after his first gold medal, despite the presence of two cameramen pointing lenses at him as he took the block, another camera hanging on a wire above him, and underwater camera waiting in the pool below. It's the mark of a singular focus. And frankly, it's the mark of a champion.

Afterward, Phelps grinned from the medal podium and accepted a garland of olive leaves on his head. He removed it and placed it over his heart for the national anthem. As the music died, Phelps clapped the garland back on top of his head as if he was putting on a baseball cap, still grinning.

Strangely enough, on this occasion, for once Phelps seemed to find exactly the right words to express what he felt. He summed it all up, the way his fingertips found the wall. "This is everything I've always wanted to do, and the day is here," he said. "Every day since I was a little kid, I woke up wishing I could win a gold medal. It probably was one of the most emotional swims I ever had."

Now that dangling gold chunk is his -- and it just might make it easier to win some of those other medals he's seeking.


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