Swimming's Wonder Boy
Gifted Phelps Is Primed to Win Multiple Medals in Athens
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 18, 2004; Page E01
First in an occasional series
Shortly after Michael Phelps turned 11, the coach of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club summoned his parents, Debbie and Fred, to a meeting in the baby-sitting room of the pool where their son learned to swim.
The coach, Bob Bowman, told them that Michael was an extraordinarily gifted swimmer who had a fabulous future ahead of him.
"This is my prediction," Bowman explained: By 2000, Michael should be in the audience at the U.S. Olympic trials, just getting the feel of big-time national competition.
"In 2004, he'll probably make his first Olympics," the coach said. "Two thousand eight will probably be a better Olympics for him, [and] 2012 . . . will be his best Olympics ever."
Debbie Phelps, who tells the story, was stunned. "Bob," she replied. "He's 11 years old." How could the coach foretell the boy's life so far into the future?
As it turned out, Bowman was wrong.
Michael Phelps wasn't in the stands at the 2000 tryouts. He was in the water, where, at 15, he made the team, and went on to swim at the Olympics in Sydney. There, he finished fifth in the 200-meter butterfly as the youngest U.S. Olympian since 1932.
This year Phelps is aiming for the Summer Games in Athens, not as a rookie Olympian, but as the most dominant swimmer in the world.
Indeed, just 10 months out of Towson High School, and seven years removed from Bowman's forecast, Michael Phelps could make history this August in Athens. All he has to do is win seven, or more, gold medals, equaling or beating the achievement of the legendary Mark Spitz at the Munich Olympics in 1972, and making him one of the greatest Olympians ever.
"I don't want to be the second Mark Spitz," says Phelps, who will turn 19 on June 30. "I want to be the first Michael Phelps."
Spitz wishes him well: "I hope he does it. It's going to be great for the Olympics. . . . It's going to be great for America. It's going to be great for him."
Phelps, a resident of Rodgers Forge, near Towson in Baltimore County, already has gained world-class attention.
He has a case full of crystal trophies and medallions in the elegant Tudor townhouse he shares with his mother. Last week he beat out basketball stars LeBron James and Diana Taurasi to win the prestigious James E. Sullivan Award, given annually by the Amateur Athletic Union.
Phelps has the added incentive of $1 million offered by Speedo, the swimwear company whose products he endorses, if he matches Spitz's record.
Skilled at several strokes, he is the world record holder in the 200-meter butterfly, the two individual medley events -- which combine all four strokes -- and is regularly referred to by coaches, colleagues and observers as the best all-around swimmer in the world. Last summer he became the first person to break five world records in one meet.
He has the perfect swimmer's physique: He stands 6 feet 4, weighs 199 pounds and has broad shoulders, a long torso and a 6-7 wingspan.
He has the training discipline for which his sport is famous, swimming endlessly up and back in the pool at Baltimore's Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center, seven days a week, almost 365 days a year.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company