by Tito Morales
ATHENS, August 10. IT’S one of those events that makes even the most seasoned of swimmers shudder.
Alternately described as the sport’s most physically demanding event and its most mentally challenging, the 400 I.M. is a race reserved for only the boldest of the bold. It requires a unique blend of courage, physical strength, technical mastery, endurance, and emotional maturity.
It’s competitive swimming’s version of the decathlon and, many would argue, the one race that determines its most talented athlete. And it’s fitting that the young man who is aiming to become swimming’s best individual medalist at the upcoming Games is also its very best individual medleyist.
Michael Phelps, quite simply, has transformed this event forever.
There used to be a time when a swimmer could get by in the 400 I.M. with only two or three strong strokes. It was a shell game of sorts. Hide the weak leg or two — one, more often than not, entailing the breaststroke — and then make up for it with a final blast of determination over the final 100 meters.
As times have continued to plummet, especially on the men’s side, it’s become quite evident that there simply aren’t enough ticks on the clock for an athlete to finesse his way through even one quarter of this race.
If you don’t have the goods in all four disciplines at the international level, don’t bother trying to reach the podium.
The Making of an I.M.er
Lost in the 2000 buzz surrounding Phelps’ becoming the youngest U.S. male Olympian since 1932 was the fact that he swam other events at the U.S. Olympic Trials, including the 400 I.M.
In Indianapolis, the 15 year old Phelps, who stood 6’3 and weighed about 165 pounds, placed 11th in a time of 4:25.97. He wound up being ranked 44th in the world that year, and watched from the sidelines as Tom Dolan and Erik Vendt earned spots on the team — and then replicated their first and second place performances in Sydney.
Just four years later, Phelps now heads to Athens as the world record holder in the event and the prohibitive favorite to win gold. He’s maybe an inch taller, 30 pounds heavier, and a heckuva lot wiser — many hundreds of thousands of meters wiser.
Obviously, Phelps is a stronger athlete than he was in Indianapolis, both physically and mentally. But who could possibly have envisioned a 17 second improvement in one of the sport’s most grueling races?
That’s 1500 meters stuff, that kind of drop. Or maybe even the type of improvement reserved for another sport, such as covering 5 kilometers in running shoes or speed skates. But in the 400 I.M. — an event that’s over in less time than it takes to boil an egg?
It was Dolan, the two-time gold medalist, who raised the bar on versatility in this race. And it is Phelps who is sending it up to where the air is thin.
Phelps smashed through the 4:10 barrier as if it was 5:03, or 4:49, or 4:33…
And this Saturday it’s very likely that his current 4:08.41 world record, which he set in Long Beach last month, may drop even lower.
In order to gain a full appreciation of how Michael Phelps has forever redefined the 400 I.M., it’s important to first look at the numbers — particularly a comparison of his splits in Indianapolis to his splits in Long Beach.
2000 – 26.77 (30.55)/ 57.32 2004 – 26.15 (29.51)/ 55.66
33.83 (33.02)/ 1:06.85 31.34 (30.85)/ 1:02.19
39.06 (40.23)/ 1:19.29 36.19 (36.71)/ 1:12.90
31.99 (30.52)/ 1:02.53 29.64 (28.02)/ 57.66
Given his natural abilities in the fly, it would have been reasonable four years ago to foresee Phelps evolving into a dominant front-half swimmer. His courage and physical strength — requisite attributes in taking out a distance medley hard — have never been an issue.
But few could have predicted that over the same period of time he would also develop into the strongest back half I.M.er in the world. Watching him gain technical mastery in the breaststroke and witnessing the development of his overall endurance has been, in a word, stunning.
When Vendt dragged Phelps down during the breaststroke leg of their epic battle at the 2002 Nationals, and both men dipped beneath Dolan’s world record, it seems to have served as a wake-up call of sorts for the Baltimore native. Both he and coach Bob Bowman surely decided that it might be prudent to devote more training time to his weakest stroke.
It’s one thing to devise a plan to better a particular component of a race. Coaches and athletes undertake such challenges on a daily basis. It’s another thing altogether, though, to not only effectively implement the plan but also to achieve the desired results. Especially so quickly.
And this is perhaps the greatest testament to Phelps’ talent between the lanelines.
What the swimming world has witnessed from Phelps is not only growth, but brisk growth. His rise to the top of the sport hasn’t merely been about improvement, it’s been about rapid improvement.
He’s forever challenging his comfort zone — and he’ll do whatever it takes to keep forcing outward the limits of his abilities. In this case it was about trying to improve his breaststroke, a discipline whose puzzles are oftentimes the most difficult of all the strokes to unravel.
He was successful. Phelps can now pretty much breaststroke with the best I.M./breaststroke specialists out there — and if anyone truly has designs on cutting into his huge advantage after the first half of the race they’re going to have to make like Brendan Hansen.
And what’s truly startling is that the 19 year old’s best years in the 400 I.M. are still ahead of him. Dolan recorded his P.R. just days before his 25th birthday. Tamas Daryni from Hungary, who reigned supreme in the event before Dolan, was also 24 when he swam his lifetime best.
It’s not unreasonable, in other words, to anticipate that as Phelps continues to mature and obtain even more endurance and mastery in his strokes, he may eventually take this mark all the way down to 4:05 or below. This is terrain that was completely unimaginable even just two years ago when Phelps and Vendt broke Dolan’s mark.
Full Medal Impact
It may seem almost preposterous to suggest — especially given the amount of media exposure he has been receiving — but what Phelps has accomplished in the 400 I.M. has been woefully underappreciated by all but the most astute of devotees.
But it happens in every sport.
When an athlete repeatedly breaks new ground, as Phelps has done in this event, observers suddenly become numb to the full impact of his accomplishments. Phelps has broken the world record in the 400 I.M. four times in the last two years. He’s bettered Dolan’s utterly dominating performance in Sydney by over three seconds. And yet it seems as if after the recent Trials, many preferred instead to direct their attention to what he couldn’t do — beat world record holders Aaron Piersol and Ian Crocker in their specialties.
Because of Phelps’s almost superhuman performances of late, it’s as if he can no longer exceed anyone’s expectations. Much like Tiger Woods on a golf course, he can only fall short of them.
Just as was the case at the U.S. Olympic Trials, the men’s 400 I.M. will be the very first final contested in the 2004 Olympics. Phelps’ world record in Long Beach effectively set the table for all the fast swimming which ensued; with eight lengths of individual medley he quickly dispelled any notions that the temporary pool might produce sluggish times.
And then everyone in attendance quickly moved on to other things.
Phelps’ 400 I.M. may very well again set the tone for the entire swimming competition in Athens.
Here’s hoping that if he does pop off yet another great performance in this event that his swim won’t be overshadowed by all the spectacular races that are sure to follow.