By Frank Litsky
INDIANAPOLIS, April 5. AT the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Michael Phelps of Baltimore did what few 15-year-olds do (swim in an Olympic final) and what many 15-year-olds do (revel in video games). At the 2004 Athens Olympics, an older and more philosophical Phelps has the potential to win five gold medals.
The ability is there. In the last two summers, Phelps, 17, has broken the world record in the 200-meter butterfly and the 400-meter individual medley. Here, at United States Swimming's national spring championships, he is not even swimming those events.
On Wednesday he won the 200-meter backstroke, a distance he seldom swims, in 1 minute 57.04 seconds, making him the fourth fastest ever. On Thursday he
won the 200-meter freestyle, a distance he admits he is unsure how to swim, in 1:47.37, making him the 15th fastest ever. Last night he won the 100-meter
butterfly in 51.89 seconds, a hundredth of a second slower than his United States record.
Today, Phelps is taking a day off from competition.
That will allow him to rest for Sunday, when the United States meets Australia here in a clash of swimming titans and Phelps swims four events: the 100-meter and 200-meter butterfly, the 400-meter individual medley and the 400-meter medley relay.
Phelps, all 6 feet 4 inches and 190 pounds of him, is America's most promising young male swimmer in decades. Tell him he is the great American hope, and he does not blink.
"I think I am," he said. "I have so many goals. I'm always hard on myself. I'm a hard worker. I'm dedicated. I hate losing. And nothing but positive
things have happened to me the last two years."
His swimming career began when he was 7 and his mother sent him to a swim club to learn water safety. It has progressed so much that he has turned professional, with lucrative endorsement contracts with Speedo and Visa.
That makes him ineligible for college swimming, but college is in his plans anyway. He is a high school senior, and he has applied to Towson University,
minutes from his home.
That will allow him to continue training with his coach, Bob Bowman, at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. Bowman says Phelps is just getting started.
"I don't see why he can't get a lot faster," Bowman said. "Look at his consistency. Day in, day out, there's good focus and effort and he never varies from it. This is his priority and this is his life. He's not worried about beating other people because he knows he will be judged by how he can expand our limits."
Tom Wilkens, 27, won the 400-meter individual medley here Thursday in Phelps's absence. Wilkens treats Phelps like a kid-brother protégé.
"I told his coach it's too bad this is a five-day event and not 10 days because then he could win everything," Wilkens said. "I think he's raising
the bar in the sport. Like Ian Thorpe and Michael Jordan, he makes his sport better. He's making me better.''
Phelps has such a straight-ahead focus that he swam backstroke and freestyle races here to improve his understanding of those strokes and thus help his
"I want to make a name for myself," he said. "I'm getting there."