OMAHA, Neb.—Michael Phelps did not grow up a dreamer of small dreams. His reach, even from a very young age, always managed to exceed his grasp, as poet Robert Browning once wrote.
Phelps yearned to become a professional athlete like his idol Pablo Morales, and, in time, even though he made it so, it was not enough.
He vowed to change the sport of swimming, and 25 world records later, there is so much more he still wants to achieve.
At age 23, however, the Rodgers Forge native finds himself on the cusp of what will likely be his defining moment. And his fellow Maryland swimmer, Katie Hoff, is about to step onto the same stage next month at the Beijing Games.
Phelps' performance last week at the U.S. Olympic trials was superb, though nothing out of the ordinary for him. He set two world records and qualified in five individual events. But, in all likelihood, it was just the prologue for what is about to come.
He does not talk of winning eight gold medals in Beijing and surpassing Mark Spitz' performance at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. He speaks only of winning every single race he enters, of feeding his intense thirst for competition. When that quest is complete, he will find fulfillment, at least for a while.
"You guys in the media are always talking about seven gold medals," Phelps said yesterday. "I don't ever talk about that. I'm just a very competitive person in everything I do, and I'm doing what I love."
Hoff's desires were less grand, at first. At age 5, it was first-place ribbons of all different colors and it was tiny plastic trophies that brought her to the pool and kept her coming back each day. It was those small rewards that inspired her to pull herself through the water faster and faster.
But as she grew older, the competitive bug that bit Phelps bit her, too.
"It's the same thing now, but on a bigger scale," said Hoff, 19, of Towson.
It was the thrill of the race, the dream of the Olympics, the desire to win every lap and go faster than any other woman had gone before. Those things made her drag herself to the pool each morning, just as the sun was rising, or log onto her computer at night, looking to find out her rivals' times.
"I'm well aware when someone breaks my record," Hoff said.
She too had a superb week at the U.S. trials, winning five individual events and, like Phelps, she put herself in position to accomplish grand feats a month from now on the other side of the globe.
The week, though, was just the opening act for both. They learned they could handle the stress of swimming thousands of meters.
"I think I've learned I can handle a challenging schedule mentally and physically," Hoff said. "Having done it once has given me a lot of confidence to do it again. I think it was kind of a rehearsal for Beijing."
It's possible Phelps and Hoff could combine to win nearly a third of the overallgold medals the U.S. Olympic team hopes to collect in Beijing.
Phelps' biggest roadblock, other than the unpredictable relays, might be his teammate Ryan Lochte. Phelps needed to break a world record in both the 200- and the 400-meter individual medleys this week to walk away a winner. There will be increased pressure as well.
"At the Olympic Games, it's a bigger venue with more hype and more publicity, but it's just a meet," Phelps said. "I'm just going to go in as relaxed as I can. I think Bob [Bowman, his coach] and I have some work to do, but I'm looking forward to it. It'll be a fun month."
Hoff's competitors in Beijing will probably be stronger, comparatively, than the ones Phelps faces. Australia's Stephanie Rice will pose a serious challenge in both individual medleys, as will France's Laure Manaudou in the 400 and 800 freestyles. Hoff will also have to battle nerves, the same ones that weighed her down in 2004 when she made her first Olympic team at age 15.
"Four years ago, I was just a completely different person," Hoff said.
Both swimmers will spend the next month at the U.S. Olympic training camp in Palo Alto, Calif., getting up early to fine-tune their strokes and erase minor flaws.
They'll spend their nights dreaming of fulfillment, and whatever else the second week of August will likely bring.