By Lisa Dillman
July 26, 2009
Phelps went through the paces at a pre-meet news conference at a major swimming event and was not asked about Mark Spitz, not even whether he was relieved, finally, not to be compared to Spitz any longer after eclipsing the icon by winning eight gold medals last summer at the Olympics in Beijing.
Instead, there was a light moment Friday near the end of the session about another future opponent looming over Phelps - in a different way than Spitz once did - one towering figure capable of blocking the sun.
Phelps, of Baltimore, will be swimming against the Cleveland Cavaliers' Shaquille O'Neal as part of the latter's coming reality show featuring him competing against top athletes in other sports. Wonder whether Shaq will be called the Big Tsunami for the Phelps episode?
"Being able to swim against a 7-foot-2, 300-pound man is going to be absolutely awesome," Phelps said, cutting Shaq a break in the weight department.
"When I had the opportunity, when I was asked to do it, I quickly said yes."
Said Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, laughing: "I'm going to be coaching Shaq. Right now, we're sewing together three bodysuits."
Spitz wasn't the only missing topic. It should also be noted that Phelps didn't have to field any direct, or even indirect, questions about the British tabloid photo published in January of him holding a bong. Phelps, who was suspended for three months from competition by USA Swimming, considered quitting the sport in the aftermath of the controversy.
Phelps, who will swim three individual events and likely three relays at the world championships in Rome, came closer to addressing the incident than any of the reporters when he talked about his post-Beijing journey.
"It's been a long year," Phelps said. "There have been good times and bad times. Lots of high points and a lot of low points. It's been a learning year, both in and out of the pool. It's been a different journey - sort of with the six-month break and trying to lose 20 pounds since I got back in the pool.
"And then, trying to switch my mind-set of not doing anything to focusing myself to prepare for Rome. Once I got back in the pool, it was kind of easy to turn that mind-set back on because that's something I've been used to my whole life."
At the Foro Italico pool complex, Phelps will be helped by a less stressful, lighter schedule than his previous campaigns at worlds. There will be no individual medleys on the program, no hated 400-meter IM. Just the 200 freestyle, 200 butterfly and the fly, in which he broke the world record last month at the U.S. nationals in Indianapolis.
His first event will be today in the 400-meter freestyle relay (without anchor Jason Lezak, who is competing in Israel), a marquee race on Day One of the meet.
Two other members of that world-record-setting relay from the Olympics are on hand with Phelps in Rome: Cullen Jones and Garrett Weber-Gale. The other two individual Olympic gold medalists from the men's team here are Aaron Peirsol (100 backstroke) and Ryan Lochte (200 backstroke).
Peirsol, who will be competing in his fourth world championships, is coming off a sensational performance in Indianapolis, where he had world-record swims in the 100 and 200 backstrokes, lowering his own mark in the former and reclaiming the record from Lochte in the latter.
The final of the men's 200 backstroke is Friday.
If the men's team is in a state of transition, the women's squad is even more so with nine teenagers in Rome. Dara Torres, at 42, balances it out, though. This is her second appearance at worlds, a mere 23 years after her debut.
Torres has spent plenty of time fielding questions from the newcomers on the U.S. team and taken her fair share of teasing.
She posted a picture of the warm-up pool on her Twitter account and noted it was the main pool for the Olympics here in 1960.
"Kids tease me and ask if I swam there then," Torres wrote.
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