by Tito Morales
LONG BEACH, Calif., July 9. MAYBE Michael Phelps CAN change the face of competitive swimming. Heck, at the rate he's going maybe he can even save the world…
From the start of this Olympic cycle, Phelps has laid claim to some awful lofty ambitions. Becoming a two-time Olympian? Child's play. World records? Not big enough. His vision even exceeds winning a bushel of gold medals.
“One of my biggest goals is to change the sport of swimming and to see if we can get more attention to our sport,” he explained Tuesday, on the eve of these Trials. “And doing things that no one has ever done before will bring attention to your sport.”
Seven gold medals. It's something few would even dare to dream about, let alone utter aloud.
Seven golds… It's Olympics speak. It's sound bite material. It's something that even aquaphobes can digest, and it represents the kind of undertaking that was designed to generate tsunami-like waves.
Yes, the parallels to Mark Spitz's accomplishments in Munich have already been overcooked beyond recognition by the mainstream media. And, yes, these same news outlets who are clamoring over one another here in Long Beach this week would surely have an easier time distinguishing Brooke Shields from Brooke Bennett.
But one simple fact remains: there hasn't been this much excitement associated with the sport in three decades.
Seven. They're talking about it in Australia. They're jabbering about it in Europe. They're mulling it over in Asia.
The build-up to these Trials has been unprecedented. Legions of journalists and photographers from around the world have descended upon Southern California to attend a swim meet. They've fired up their laptops, screwed on their telephoto lenses, and illuminated their floodlights. And, however just or unjust it may be, the reason why most are here is to see if he can do it — to see if Michael can conceivably match Mark.
That's the ugly side of it. It's frustrating to realize that a sport so rich and diverse can be reduced to such simplistic terms. But then there's's unmistakable splendor behind it all. While directing their attention on the 19 year old phenom from Baltimore, the cameras are stumbling across the exploits of a Keller or a Hoff.
If it takes a Michael Phelps to notice a Larsen Jensen or a Kaitlin Sandeno, then so be it. It if takes a world record in the men's 400 I.M. to shed light on a U.S. open record in the women's 400 I.M., then bring the cameras forward.
The atmosphere inside the All Charter Digital Centre is boisterous and vibrant. It's as if someone has draped an extension cord across the sky and plugged it directly into the center of the sun.
With a touch of Barnum & Bailey, a dose of Academy Awards and MTV, and a dash of “Survivor,” these 2004 Trials have transformed competitive swimming into an elaborate spectacle. There's the multi-million dollar temporary venue, the heart-thumping pre-race build-up, the excitement of live television! And then there's Phelps and his drive for seven.
The danger, of course, is that it's strictly the Michael show. The promise, though, is that the sport will finally, at long last, receive its just deserts.
We are witnessing the new face of competitive swimming.
“The whole Spitz thing came into play when you guys started hyping it up,”? Phelps casually mused on Tuesday, while facing the legion of reporters.
But through it all, he's done little to defuse the building hysteria.
Maybe it's because Phelps is wise beyond his years. He and his inner circle understand, whether consciously or subconsciously, that these are the dynamics of the new American way.
It's no longer enough to let your actions speak for themselves. In order to be truly heard over the din of constant fad and trend, you must engage in the game of hype and hyperbole.
It has nothing to do with brashness. It has everything to do with the shrugging free of constraints and limitations.
When Phelps nears a competition pool, there is no end to the possibilities. The unreasonable becomes reasonable. The paradigm shifts.
Tiger Woods has done it to golf.
Lance Armstrong has done it to cycling.
And by the time he's through, Michael Phelps, for better or for worse, may well do it to competitive swimming.