By Kevin Van Valkenburg
August 9, 2008
You might have heard about his quest to win eight gold medals at these Beijing Olympics. You might have heard how he wants to break Mark Spitz's record for the most medals in a single Games, that he won't be satisfied with anything else.
You've just never heard it from him.
"I haven't said anything about breaking any record, or going after any record," Phelps said. "You guys [in the media] are the ones saying that. I have my goals, and they haven't been published. [My coach] and I are the only two people that know about them, and we're going to try and work to achieve them."
The distinction between what he's said and what others have said for him is important to Phelps. If he's going to win eight gold medals, he can't look at the big picture. He can't think about what Spitz accomplished in Munich in 1972. He has to focus on each race - preliminaries, semifinals, finals - or the burden of what he's attempting will be too much.
That ability to focus - which his coach, Bob Bowman, believes compares favorably with Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Roger Federer and other great athletes who earned a reputation for high performance under pressure - goes a long way toward explaining why Phelps is the best swimmer in the world.
And it's the best explanation for why eight gold medals, which would likely go down as one of the greatest achievements in the history of sport, just might be possible over the next 10 days. It starts tonight with the 400 individual medley.
It won't be easy. His biggest challenges will come from teammates - Ryan Lochte in the 400 IM and world-record holder Ian Crocker in the 100 butterfly - and France's 4 x 100 free relay team.
"I think particularly at the Olympic level, at the top level, the pressure comes as much from expectation of what people think you can do as it does from your competitors," Bowman said. "Michael is able to basically ignore all of those things, which is super hard to do."
Phelps is also one of the most competitive people on the planet. He wants to win every race because that mentality is burned into his DNA. If he finishes second in one of them, he'll be disappointed.
The routineTo understand how Phelps will be able to handle it all, watch his pre-race routine. It has not changed since he was 13, but if you listen to Bowman, it's the key to everything.
After warming up, Phelps walks to the pool with his head down, listening to music. He stretches his right leg on the starting block, shakes it a few times until his muscles feel loose, then he does the same with his left. He offers an expressionless wave when his name is announced, then removes his warm-up jacket. He makes no eye contact. On the starting blocks, he scissor-crosses his arms two-and-a-half times, right before the horn goes off, and then he dives into the pool.
"I think that's just a very familiar pattern that he does, and it gets his mind in a place where it needs to be," Bowman said. "I remember clearly the first time he swam at nationals, he swam very, very well in the prelims and came back that night and I was very curious to see how he would do the first time in the finals. And he just walked out and did his normal routine.
"That's very rare that you would have some kid who is 14 up on the blocks stretching and doing all this stuff while the other guys are sitting back in their chairs. Most kids would [succumb to peer pressure] and do what the other guys were doing. But he just totally did his own thing."
Even among those who can appreciate Phelps' ability to deliver under pressure, opinion is divided over whether such a feat can be accomplished. Not only does Phelps need to win five individual events, he also needs victories in three relay races.
Spitz said last month at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Omaha that he believes Phelps has a great chance. The two swimmers are not close - they've shared only a few words over the years - but Spitz seems more comfortable these days discussing Phelps than he did four years ago.
"I think it's about time that someone else take the responsibility and I'm happy to pass the baton on to someone that I'm sure I have inspired," Spitz said. "Thirty six years is a long time. To be honest, if he doesn't do it, then it was not meant to be, but it does not take away from his greatness. He's shown a different kind of courage than I did. I was not chasing seven gold medals."
There has been no shortage of respectful, but adamant doubters. Swimmer Matt Biondi - who won five gold medals in Seoul, South Korea, in 1992, and is now a math teacher in Hawaii - said there are simply too many variables involved to win eight gold medals. The odds that something could go wrong, including something outside his control, are considerable.
"I hope he does it, but the odds are against him," Biondi said. "That's not a knock on him. But there are always going to be upsets. My guess is there is going to be an upset in Beijing."
Biondi, who took his own aim at Spitz's mark and came up short, has a story about his Olympic experience that illustrates his point. The night of his first final in Seoul, he planned to catch the last bus to the swimming venue. He didn't anticipate the bus would be overcrowded, and right as he was about to get on, the doors closed. The bus left. He had to walk to his first final.
"Michael is going to have something like that in his own way," Biondi said. "I'm sure that USA Swimming will offer him a little more protection, but he's not only going to need a bodyguard, he's going to need two bodyguards."
'Fire in my stomach'Australia's Ian Thorpe also expressed doubts that Phelps could pull it off, but in doing so, he might have done Phelps a favor. Bowman printed Thorpe's comments and showed them to Phelps, who taped them to the back of his locker in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"It's things like that that absolutely just make me go literally insane," Phelps said. "They fire me up so much. That's like the final touch that gets me and puts a fire in my stomach. If people want to talk, I encourage it because I love it. It motivates me more than anything."
What makes Phelps' task all the more unique is that, other than the relays, there's not likely to be swimmers from other countries standing in his way, especially after Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands decided to drop out of the 200-meter freestyle days before the Games. His top opponents will likely to be his American teammates, including Lochte, one of his best friends.
Lochte could easily sink the entire story line tomorrow by winning the 400-meter individual medley. The Daytona, Fla., native is one of the few swimmers who doesn't look at Phelps like he's superhuman.
"Honestly, I really don't feel like swimmers feel like [they can beat him]," Lochte said. "I bet there are some, but he's so dominant in everything he swims, most swimmers are just trying to get second. That's definitely not the case with me. I always feel like I can beat him."
Regardless of what happens over the next 10 days, it's going to be hard, at least in Bowman's eyes, for people to put it all into perspective. The hype that surrounds Phelps' attempt to win eight gold medals has made that virtually impossible.
"I think the hardest challenge is just understanding that no matter what happens in these meets, Michael is going to be judged by people who don't truly understand what he's doing," Bowman said. "If he wins seven, it will be, 'Why didn't he win eight?' If he doesn't win them all in world record time, it will be 'What's wrong? Why didn't he break a world record?' There is always something. If one of the relays doesn't win, it will be 'What happened?' "
Phelps is a different swimmer than he was in Athens in 2004, when he won six gold medals and two bronze. Thanks to weight training the past two years - something he'd never done - he's stronger physically and has more speed in the shorter events. He's also more mature, and has a better understanding of what it's going to take to eclipse Spitz's record.
"When people ask me about Spitz and say do you want to do what he did, my answer is: I want to become the first Michael Phelps, not the second Mark Spitz," Phelps said. "I want to do something that no one else has ever done before.
"That's what I want people to look at me as - being one of a kind. Here is something that no one before my time has done, and have someone say that about me. I think that's cool. Being compared to the greatest Olympian of all time? It's not that bad."
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