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Phelps Is an Eyewitness to History

Swimmer Ties Record for Medals in One Olympiad While Sitting Out Relay

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 22, 2004; Page E01

ATHENS, Aug. 21 -- The big kid wearing the sunglasses in the front row was really carrying on. He was jumping up and down, banging on the pool deck barrier and leading the chants of "USA! USA!"

He threw T-shirts up into the stands, and looked like a jazzed-up hoops guy, a hockey nut or an average Joe at the racetrack. Except that people kept coming up for autographs, snapshots and handshakes.

Michael Phelps earned gold for the 400 medley relay because he swam in a preliminary. (Jeff J. Mitchell -- Reuters)

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But Michael Phelps didn't mind. He said spending the last nightfall of his splendid Olympic meet in the risers was all right. He said he was cool with seeing his teammates celebrate, and taking the gold medal walk around the pool.

It was exciting on the other side of the sport, he said, especially watching the United States set a world record in the 400-meter medley relay, a race he could have been in.

Yet it seemed strange to see Phelps, 19, in his warmup suit on the crowning night of an Olympics he ruled for seven days, and odd to have him bid competition farewell from the sidelines.

But the Maryland Olympian already is moving on.

Although he will remain in Athens through the Closing Ceremonies next week, some members of his family who have been attending the Games are heading home Sunday, and his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, is leaving Monday.

Bowman, who has coached Phelps since the swimmer was 11, will return to Baltimore, pack up his belongings and travel to Ann Arbor, Mich., where, on Sept. 1, he starts his new job as head men's swimming coach at the University of Michigan. Phelps is expected to attend Michigan, perhaps next year.

Saturday, after the strains of the national anthem closed the eight-day swimming competition, and the gray plastic bleachers emptied for the last time, Phelps sat at the interview table alone and reflected on his Games.

"We medaled in every event but one," he said. "We had a good time doing it, and we had one of the best teams in history.

"Being able to be a part of the U.S. Olympic swimming team, we're going to go down in history, and we're going to be remembered for what we did here," he said. "Being a part of that is unbelievable."

Over the last week, Phelps raced 17 times in seven days, winning six gold medals and two bronze. He tied Russian gymnast Aleksandr Dityatin for most medals won in a single Olympiad. Dityatin won eight at the U.S.-boycotted 1980 Olympics in Moscow.

Phelps also tied American swimmer Mark Spitz for most gold medals won in individual events. Spitz won four in Munich in 1972, along with three gold medals for relays.

"Within the realm of things that Michael could control he had a perfect week," Bowman said before the final races Saturday. "All of his goals were achieved, within the realm of what he could do. It's kind of neat."

Phelps capped his week by winning the 100-meter butterfly Friday night, earning the right to swim the butterfly leg of the medley relay Saturday. But he gave up his spot to teammate and second-place finisher Ian Crocker.

Phelps wanted Crocker, who had been ailing at the start of the meet, to have a shot at the race. Crocker, who has a fast relay start, made the most of it, substantially lengthening the team's lead during his leg en route to the U.S. victory.

Phelps's nod to Crocker still was reverberating around Athens on Saturday.

"It was a shocker for the whole Phelps camp," said his agent, Peter Carlisle, "the last thing that you'd anticipate. But knowing Michael it makes all the sense in the world. He's the guy next door, a hell of lot more like your next-door neighbor than he is a professional athlete."

Phelps's mother, Debbie, said Saturday that the gesture was amazing. "When you watch Michael in the pool, you see how he definitely embraces the sport, and has this passion for the sport" she said. "What he did [for Crocker] was compassion he has for his teammates."

She said she was also overwhelmed that, after all the years of preparation, his role in the Games was now coming to an end. "It's very emotional," she said. "It's very sad. It really is. I know there's so much more that's going to happen."

Phelps had come into the games as a magazine cover boy for swimming. He had three world records, lucrative endorsement deals, and was aiming to tie Spitz's record of seven gold medals in one Olympiad.

Phelps's chief sponsor, Speedo, had promised him $1 million if he did it -- in 2004, or 2008 at the next Summer Games in Beijing.

There was also some jealousy among other competitors that Phelps was getting so much attention, while poaching on the events of specialists.

But the Spitz record faded from reach Monday, when Phelps, in a 200-meter freestyle race against Australian Ian Thorpe, the world record holder in the event, and Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband, finished third. It netted Phelps his second bronze medal of the Games.

Perhaps the most striking scene in the swimming competition came Tuesday as Phelps watched teammate Klete Keller edge out Thorpe in the last leg of the 800-meter freestyle relay final to give the U.S. team the gold. Phelps, standing poolside, reared back, thrust both arms in the air and screamed with delight.

And he said his gesture to Crocker also was done for the team. "We came into this meet as a team and we're going to be leaving it as a team," he said Friday.

Phelps's individual golds were in the 400-meter individual medley, the 200-meter individual medley, the 200-meter butterfly and the 100-meter butterfly. Spitz's four came in the 100- and 200-meter freestyle and 100- and 200-meter butterfly.

Phelps got another relay gold in the 800-meter freestyle, but only bronze in the 400-meter freestyle relay. He earned a gold medal for Saturday's 400-meter medley race because he had competed in the relay preliminary on Friday.

With all the comparisons to Spitz, some experts believe Phelps already is more accomplished.

"Look at the range of events [Phelps] has had to prepare for," Paul Bergen, the American coach of Dutch swimming star Inge de Bruijn, wrote in an e-mail Saturday.

"His effort was not limited to two strokes," as was that of Spitz, wrote Bergen, who is a former mentor to Bowman. "I think rather than put one ahead of the other, it might be more appropriate to mark Michael's accomplishments as one of the Olympic Games' most remarkable feats, along with Mark Spitz's seven gold medals."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company