Solo dive for history: mission impossible?

Sun Staff

John Naber will warm up the crowd and interview out-of-breath winners at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials. He expects to spend considerable time with Michael Phelps.

"Everyone is missing the point," Naber said. "Seven gold medals would be great, but what's amazing is the chance that Michael could swim five individual events at the Olympics. That's what we should be playing up."

Naber is among the men who have a firsthand understanding of the fuss over Phelps and his run at Olympic history, the seven gold medals won by Mark Spitz in 1972. The $1 million bonus that Speedo has dangled in front of the Rodgers Forge native underlines the odds against matching that achievement.

Two weeks to the start of the U.S. trials at the Long Beach (Calif.) Swim Stadium, it's time to ponder the limits of swimmers - or in Phelps' case, ignore them.

Here are three facts Phelps is oblivious to, one for each of the events in which he holds a world record:

1. Spitz is the only man to win more than two individual golds in a single Olympics.

To appreciate what Spitz did in Munich, Germany, and what Phelps could do in Athens, Greece, in two months, subtract relays from the equation. Before 2000, the U.S. men had never lost in two of the Olympic relays, and they were 13-6 in the other. Spitz wasn't the first American to have a medal total include three relay golds, and it's individual brilliance that drives his distinction.

More than three dozen times, a male swimmer has won two individual golds in a single Olympics. Only Spitz kept going, ruling the 100- and 200-meter freestyles, and the 100 and 200 butterflys. Phelps holds world records in the 200 butterfly, 200 individual medley and 400 IM. Athens wins in those events would put him above every male swimmer, except Spitz.

Earlier greats were handcuffed by a limited Olympic program.

Disregard race walking, and the Olympic program for track and field was in place before World War I. Conversely, none of the four events in which Phelps has set a world record was in the Olympics before 1956. The International Olympic Committee was tinkering with swimming as late as 1984, to the detriment of men like Johnny Weissmuller and Don Schollander.

Weissmuller, who became Tarzan in the movies, won gold in the 100 and 400 freestyles in 1924. Schollander, now a real estate developer in Oregon, did the same in 1964. Both also held the world record in the 200 freestyle, but in their eras it wasn't contested at the Olympics.

"I met Johnny a couple of times, but that was never brought up," Schollander said. "The Olympic schedule was a fact of life. The 200 freestyle was my best event. I only lost once in seven years, and that was my last race, in Mexico City."

That was 1968, when Olympic swimming ballooned from seven individual events to 12.

Before that expansion, no swimmer had won four individual events in a career, let alone a single Olympics. The men who joined Spitz with four individual golds did so by repeating a double: Germany's Roland Matthes in the 100 and 200 backstrokes (1968 and '72); Hungarian Tamas Darnyi in the 200 and 400 IMs (1988 and '92); and Russian Alexander Popov in the 50 and 100 freestyles (1992 and '96).

Phelps is an anomaly in an age of specialization, when many perfect one stroke or prepare for one event.

Naber won both backstrokes in 1976, and was the surprise leader of the 200 freestyle until he was caught in the closing stages by Bruce Furniss, swimming his only individual event. In 1984, German Michael Gross won the 200 freestyle and 100 butterfly, then was upset by 17-year-old Australian Jonathon Sieben in the 200 butterfly.

Four years later in Seoul, South Korea, Matt Biondi was similarly undone. Third in a loaded 200 freestyle field, he was then beaten by a hundredth of a second in the 100 butterfly by Suriname's first Olympic medalist, Anthony Nesty. Biondi went on to win the 100 and 50 freestyles.

Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands was a hat trick candidate in Sydney, Australia, four years ago. In the 200 freestyle, he snatched the world record and gold medal from hometown favorite Ian Thorpe. Two nights later, van den Hoogenband beat Popov, the two-time champion, in the 100 freestyle. He was finally stopped two nights later, when he took bronze in the 50 free, just .05 of a second behind Anthony Ervin and Gary Hall Jr., who shared gold.

2. No man has won medals in five individual events at an Olympics.

For one day, Phelps held the world record in a fourth event, the 100 butterfly. He's also No. 2 all-time in the 200 backstroke and coming fast in the 200 freestyle, where he holds the American record. That range has fueled speculation he could attempt one of the most ambitious schedules in Olympic swimming history.

Only one swimmer has won medals in five individual events. Shane Gould, a 15-year-old from Australia, won three golds, a silver and a bronze in 1972. The spotlight so unnerved Gould, she retired at 16.

No American has ever attempted five individual events at the Olympics. Spitz's first world record in 1967 came in the 400 freestyle, but by Munich that wasn't his focus. Shirley Babashoff won five events at the U.S. trials in 1976, but scratched from one in Montreal.

3. Only one American man has entered three individual events since 1988.

Spitz and Biondi were the only American men in the last century to try four individual events at the Olympics. In the past three games, Tom Dolan has been the only U.S. man to attempt three. A legendary worker and two-time champion in the 400 IM, Dolan was after mileage instead of glory in 1996, when he took gold in that race, finished seventh in the 200 IM and didn't reach the final in the 400 freestyle.

"Wow," said Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach. "I didn't know it [tripling] had become that rare."

Phelps is qualified to swim 11 of the 13 individual events, all but the 50 freestyle and 100 breaststroke, at the U.S. trials. Bowman won't disclose Phelps' intentions, other than to say he'll only enter events in which he has a legitimate shot at a gold medal.

Bowman points to the media as the source of the hype over seven golds, but that started when Phelps won four events at the 2002 Summer Nationals and picked up steam when he twice made history at the 2003 world championships. If he wasn't going to try at least four individual events, would his agent have negotiated that $1 million bonus?

Two news items from last weekend framed what Phelps is up against.

A potential medalist in four individual events, Natalie Coughlin announced she will swim just two at the trials. Ian Crocker, one of Phelps' chief rivals, posted a 100 butterfly time that showed how hard to beat he will be.

"It's difficult for Michael, because everyone specializes in this era," said Rowdy Gaines, a 1984 gold medalist who provides color commentary for NBC. "You've got Aaron Peirsol in the backstroke, Crocker in the fly, the Hungarian kid [Laszlo Cseh] going to Athens just for the 400 IM. It's like Michael Jordan being triple-teamed."

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