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Phelps' brush with greatness

LONG BEACH, Calif. - This wasn't just another item on the full itinerary for the presumptive star of the 2004 Olympics.

Next Wednesday: News conference with Cindy Crawford at 1 p.m.; evening appearance at the ESPYs.

Last night: Win the 200-meter butterfly at the U.S. Olympic team trials for swimming; pick up first-place medal and meet Mark Spitz.

"That was one of the most exciting moments I've had in sports," Phelps said. "Something I'll never forget."

The Olympic legend and heir apparent finally spoke and shook hands, in a moment that mixed choreography with the impromptu.

Earlier Spitz seemed perplexed that Phelps had never sought him out, but the man who won seven gold medals with seven world records in 1972 showed that he hadn't lost his flair for the dramatic.

Beyond doping scandals and security fears, Phelps' assault on Spitz's haul, a record for a single Olympics, has become the major story line of Athens. With that prospective theater in mind, NBC left its coverage of the U.S. track and field trials in Sacramento and showed the race live, and meet officials made sure Spitz was the presenter in one of his specialties.

Spitz was introduced, and the sellout crowd of 9,878 went nuts. At 6:05 p.m. local time, Phelps, 19, walked onto the podium and leaned down to shake the hand of the graying 54-year-old, who whispered sweet somethings into his right ear.

After he placed the medal around Phelps' neck, Spitz jumped up on the podium for a Kodak moment, like most presenters. He thrust Phelps' right arm to the sky, like a boxing referee after a knockout.

"I had no idea what I was going to do," Spitz said. "I was kind of winging it."

What did he say to Phelps?

"One of the things that he said was that he's behind me, and he knows what I'm going through," Phelps said. "He told me to focus on swimming. He's going to be there in Athens, cheering me on. To have one of the best of all time shake your hand and hold it up, say he's behind you 100 percent, that's motivation."

It wasn't Stanley tracking down Livingstone, but maybe the high point of the meet, which lacked a world record for the second straight day. What was in the mind of North Baltimore Aquatic Club coach Bob Bowman, who stood alongside the podium with his mentor, Murray Stephens?

"Wow," Bowman said. "That was compelling. ... I almost got trampled by the paparazzi trying to get that shot."

Between 1967 and the 1972 Munich Olympics, Spitz dropped the world record in the 200 butterfly nine times. It was the event that put Phelps on the international map in March 2001, when a 15-year-old sophomore at Towson High became the youngest man to set a world record in a stopwatch sport.

Phelps had dropped that mark twice more, at the 2001 world championships, which sped his decision to turn professional, and again in the semifinals of the 2003 world championships, to 1:53.93.

Admittedly a little too juiced for his only race of the day, Phelps was ahead of his world-record pace at the 50- and 100-meter walls, but tightened a bit. He still might have gotten the world record if not for a lousy final turn. Phelps came home in 1:54.31. Only one other man has ever gone under 1:55, but he was genuinely ticked.

"I was disappointed," Phelps said.

Phelps now owns history's four fastest times in the event. It was his third win in four nights here, where he is entered in three more events.

Wasn't he being a bit hard on himself?

"That's how I am," Phelps said. "If I don't set a world record, I come back and work harder. That's what I did four years ago, when I came home from Sydney without a medal, and six months later got the world record."

Bowman said the race "meets our criteria for success," and added that no one else in the world has come within two seconds of that time. The runner-up was Tom Malchow, the 2000 Olympic champion who joined a rare group of American swimmers by qualifying for his third Games. The 27-year-old from Club Wolverine was well behind in 1:57.37.

"I saw a lot of Michael's feet," Malcow said.

It was the easiest load Phelps has in a seven-day, 17-race grind at a temporary pool on a convention center parking lot across from Long Beach Harbor. He has preliminaries and semifinals in the 200 backstroke and 200 individual medley today. Tomorrow will bring finals in both, and the first two rounds of the 100 butterfly.

Then comes Athens, where Phelps will encounter Olympic pressure - and possibly history.

"I really think he has a chance to do this," Spitz said. "That's one of the things I told him."

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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