Sports REDIRECT SECTION: sports olympics

Life in the fast lane

Four years from now, the world will scrutinize him again.

His braces will be gone, and, yes, he'll have his driving license. He will have stopped growing nine inches and 60 pounds in a single year. His program will have expanded from his lone 200-meter butterfly race to three Olympic competitions. He's bound for Athens in 2004, swimming for gold medals, plural.

Only last fall, Michael Phelps came home from the 2000 Olympics to his training pool in Mount Washington, where he recounted meeting superstars Vince Carter and Mia Hamm. There Michael was, acting all grown up at 15, when his older sister Hilary stuck her tongue out to crack him up before the cameras.

It was her way of saying, Buddy, isn't this a crazy ride? See you at home.. I'll drive you to the mall or make a pan of lasagna. I love you, you know.

The Phelps story line has universal themes: raw talent, hard work, single-minded devotion. But at the center is a family at work - one that has experienced unrivaled success and unexpected heartbreak.

It's a family that went to the Olympics in pieces. Michael's mother and sister Hilary arrived by chartered jet, rooms ready aboard a cruise ship in Sydney Harbor, their trip sponsored by an insurance company. Michael's father and his new bride arrived by commercial jet, their $10,000 trip unsponsored. His other sister, once an Olympic hopeful herself, stayed far away.

In 2004, we can say we knew him when - when he met the mayor of Baltimore and was a guest at the White House, when he had trading cards in his name and screen savers featured his mug, when girls at his high school in Towson dreamed of landing him as their prom date, when he swam more than 12 miles on double practice days just to drop a particle off his best time.

Only 1.32 seconds separate Michael from his goal of breaking the world record in the 200-meter butterfly by March. Only 1.32 seconds - the average time it takes to type the name Michael.

Doesn't everyone wish to freeze certain moments? Their wedding day. The birth of their son, a 9.6 pounder. The time their daughter was a world-ranked swimmer. The time their boy learned how to shake a man's hand. The time he brought his mother a silver charm from Sydney. And the times they get a parent's biggest thrill: when people say their son is a gentleman, and not just a great swimmer.

Let's freeze Michael at 15. The time: fall 2000, after the Olympics, before the rest of the world went away to watch other young men play other sports. A growing boy, Michael Fred Phelps, is growing into himself. He's a champion in progress, a man in the making, with a coach and family behind him.

To begin, let's watch Michael eat.

He isn't even breaking a sweat. On other Monday nights at Bill Bateman's in Towson, Michael scarfs down 50 or more Buffalo wings at a sitting. But on this night, at this meal with his mother and his sister Hilary, he doesn't go the distance. He's getting over a headache.

"Were you reading again?" Hilary teases. "Is that how you got your headache?"

Even for an Olympic athlete, surviving older sisters is a triumph.

It's early October and Michael has decompressed from the pressure of Sydney, where in September he placed fifth in the 200-meter butterfly. "He's back to normal, all right," Hilary says. The dinner is spent with sister and brother in each other's lanes, laughing and trading inside jabs, reveling in each other's company. The missing link, sister Whitney, is away at college.

Hilary graduated last year from the University of Richmond, where, she mentions under her breath, "I hold three swimming records." At 22, Hilary, the first child, the first swimmer in the family, looks at a career that might be over. She wants to get a job and get on with the business of life-after-swimming.

She lives at home in Rodgers Forge, where the Phelps front yard was acupunctured with U.S. flags for Michael's return from Sydney. She makes her brother cheesecake and lasagna in ample quantities. "That's my part in the Michael Phelps swimming scenario," she says.

Tonight over wings, she and Michael exchange dialogue from Adam Sandler movies. In fact, Michael's longest and most animated sentences are passages from his favorite comedies. There's no stopping him. Try asking Michael about the Olympics, though, and he'll say, "It was just something to go to. "

He may swim like a 22-year-old man, but Michael Phelps is quintessentially 15; a boy who wanted to get his braces off before the Olympics so the press wouldn't harp on such weighty matters as orthodontia.

Hilary and Michael recite movie dialogue until their mother intervenes.

"Can you quote Shakespeare like that?" she asks. Spoken like a true educator. Deborah Phelps, a former tomboy from westernMaryland, is an administrator at Loch Raven Academy. Debs, her children call her.

"Debs made me come home early from the Olympics," Michael says, so he missed out on a free Razor scooter the athletes received.

They call her Debs not out of disrespect but out of tradition. At their swim meets, the Phelps kids yelled "Hey, Debs!" instead of "Hey, Mom!" Otherwise, every other mom would have answered; there is only one Debs who got up all those mornings, drove to all those meets, made all those lunches.

"Peanut butter with honey," Michael says.

"You got honey?" Hilary asks.

Favoritism rears its head.

Over another plate of wings, the truth comes out about Michael. He swims in his sleep (dives, too) and listens to DMX or Eminem on his headphones just moments before he competes. (This fact has prompted other swim moms to solemnly ask Miss Debbie, "You let him listen to that music?" It's OK, America; Michael likes the beat, not the words.) He also harbors an almost unspeakable passion for Breyer's vanilla ice cream. Oh, he likes to win, too.

His best time at Sydney, incidentally, would have won him a gold medal in the 1996 Games in Atlanta - a cool yet utterly useless statistic. Michael is acutely aware he's 1.32 seconds off the world record of 1:55:18 in the 200-meter butterfly.

"My goal is to be the first man under 1:55," he says.

As for the 2004 Olympics, "I think I'm going to be the next Malchow," Michael says. The 200-meter butterfly race was American teammate Tom Malchow's to lose in Sydney, and he didn't. Anybody who cared about Michael just wanted him to come home in one piece, and he did. 2004 will be another story.

"If I lose in Athens, it will be a choke," he says.

It's difficult for someone with an exceptional talent to explain why they are exceptionally talented. Good work habits, good gene pool. Growing up with sisters who were successful swimmers created a competitive, osmotic environment for Michael. He also benefited from the experience of a couple of veterans of the Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center, Olympians BethBotsford and Anita Nall.

Then there's the water itself: nine feet of 78- to 80-degree water, a sea of tranquility, snug as a mother's arms.

"If I'm not in the water for a few days, I'm not the same person," he says. "For some people, it's like not having food."

At Bill Bateman's, Michael calls it quits after 18 Buffalo wings. Then he asks Hilary a crucial question: "Do I have stuff on my mouth?"

Would she tell him if he did?

Outside the clubby world of competitive swimming, who knew Michael was a hotshot until this year?

Yet four years ago, Michael was already a world-ranked swimmer. He was also a shy kid at Dumbarton Middle School who had trouble sitting still in class, all that energy bundling and rolling through his arms and legs. School desks are straitjackets for sprouting boys.

Molly Baldwin was in eighth grade at Dumbarton when she noticed Michael, and though it was scandalous to be seen with a sixth-grade guy, he was so much fun. Their "relationship" ended like most middle school affairs do - she graduated. She still remembers the red rose Michael gave her for graduation. "He must have used all of his allowance."

She remembers the time they saw "Jurassic Park" together. She remembers a small picture of Michael pinned to a bulletin board at school. "I stole the picture. I still might have it." She remembers a boy who wasn't nearly so tall or famous.

"He's stayed true to his character," she says. "But he's not as shy as he used to be."

Today, Molly is a senior and Michael is a sophomore at Towson High. They talk. "I just don't want him to think I'm talking to him because he's a star."

She saw him at the homecoming dance, and it wouldn't have been the worst moment of her life to dance with her old friend.

"But the girls were swarming all around him." Molly heard one girl in the school hall say, Oh my God! I touched him!

If this sort of attention isn't mortifying enough for a sophomore, Michael was also the subject of a satirical English paper titled "I Know Him." It proposed a trivia contest in which contestants would answer questions about Michael's family, his musical tastes and swimming accomplishments. Participants who answered correctly would "have to tread water for as long as possible. The last contestant treading water will win a date with Michael to their senior prom."

It was all in fun and all a little silly. Still, when Molly Baldwin heard about the contest, she couldn't help but tell herself, "I knew all the answers." When she sees girls steal touches from Michael, she tells herself one more true thing. "I dated him."

The swimmer in Lane 4 wears a white cap flying the U.S. colors. No house brand for Phelps. The other 15 swimmers, all high schoolers like him, work in their North Baltimore Aquatic Club swim caps - standard blue with ATHENS 2004 lettering.

After countless freestyle laps, Michael swims the butterfly at quarter speed. His curved back fans up out of the breaking water like some surfacing marine mammal. You can teach drills and technique, his coach Bob Bowman, says, but you can't teach a swimmer's "feel for the water." That's intuitive ability. That's the part that makes you pinch yourself.

A child psychology major and swimmer from Florida State University, Bowman knows Michael as well as anyone. They spend up to five hours a day together, seven days a week. They have learned not to be in bad moods on the same day. Bowman knows if Michael got his recommended nine hours of sleep; knows what mall Michael frequents; knows if he's been keeping up with school work; knows Michael's mood just by the way he walks into practice. He can see it in his eyes.

The eyes look willing today. Around 3:30 p.m., Michael swaggers toward the indoor pool at Meadowbrook. It looks like a long, noisy pool. A fishbowl, more like it.

"Welcome to the glamorous world of swimming," says Bowman. "It's kind of like watching grass grow."

The "Senior Performance Group" begins practice by swimming fifteen 100-yard drills, each one at a faster pace. To the nonswimmer, the exercise would spell certain drowning. There's hardly any splashing; the strokes are so efficient. The simple, endless goal: maximize propulsion, minimize water resistance.

During the two-hour-plus session, the swimmers will log 9,000 yards, a third of that on kickboards. Bowman praises his swimmers with the apparent frequency of lunar eclipses, but you get the impression they would swim to the moon and back for him. They nearly do.

Of the four competitive strokes, the butterfly is the oddest, newest and probably the most demanding. The butterfly - papillon, borboleta and Schmetterling in other languages - became an Olympic event at the 1956 Melbourne Games. In the butterfly, both arms must recover over the water simultaneously; a swimmer's projecting thumbs act like small wings, as thefeet move as one unit like the fluke of a dolphin. It's not a stroke for distance or recreation. And it takes a special breed of swimmer.

Body type helps, a lot. Big hands, big feet. Broad shoulders, tall, thin. Hilary and Whitney and Michael are all fliers.

"I like to think they have my upper-body strength," says their dad, Fred Phelps, a former college football player who tried out for the Washington Redskins in the early 1970s.

After more than two hours of swimming, Michael appears ready to flip off his white Olympic cap. Land workouts await - chin-ups, ab crunches, light work on the weights, PowerBar scarfing.

The kid is finally breathing hard. "You got one more?" Bowman bellows. Michael nods, staying put in Lane 4. One more lap.

"Let's get under," the coach says, and his best swimmer begins again.

"UNLV's Whitney Phelps, whose swimming career appeared to be over a year ago, overcame a back injury this season to be named Freshman of the Year." - Las Vegas Review-Journal, February 2000.

Before there was Michael Phelps, family swim star, there was Whitney Phelps, family swim star.

She makes smaller headlines these days.

At age 14, Whitney was ranked third in the world in the 200-meter butterfly; at 15, her kid brother Michael is ranked seventh in the world. At 15, Whitney swam the 200-meter butterfly at the 1996 Olympic trials in Indianapolis.

With an ailing back, she finished sixth. "Partly because of her back, partly nerves," says her former coach at Meadowbrook, Murray Stephens. Her failure to make the U.S. Olympic team was heartbreaking. "It left a scar," Michael says. "That devastated us. We were in ruins."

Injuries continue to hamper Whitney, now 20 and swimming for the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. The bulging disk in her neck and herniated disk in her lower back have flared up to the point that she hasn't been able to swim lately and might require an operation. Four years ago, her back hurt more than maybe she let on.

"When I see that slogan, 'no pain, no gain,' I wince," says her mother. "When a child hurts, you should tell someone. She told me later that during some practices, she couldn't do a flip turn."

Lessons had to be learned. Swimmers, who are successful at a very young age, can peak too soon. Sometimes - most times, actually - not every young person with incredible athletic ability will make the Olympics. It's not their time.

Debbie says she took her daughter's success for granted. "When she came home and said 'I'm world-ranked,' I said, 'Oh, that's good.' " Whitney's going to the Olympics would be a piece of cake, her mom thought. "I was naive."

Whitney didn't go to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta; instead she watched swimmers she had competed against and beaten win medals. "I learned to redirect my bitterness and anger," she says.

Four years later, Whitney didn't go to Sydney either.

"I know she didn't want to be anywhere near that city," her mom says.

"I don't blame her," Bowman says. "I would have said Whitney was favored in 2000."

Whitney did travel to Indianapolis for the trials last August, and burst onto the pool deck to hug Michael after he won an Olympic berth. Then she returned to UNLV and her swimming. When she'd call home, she found the conversation sometimes centered on Michael. Hello? This is your daughter, remember?

"But I understand," Whitney says. It's Michael's time. "I would never take anything away from him." Still, "it's good sometimes to be on the other side of the country."

Her kid brother called her every day from Australia. He called for advice, he called to hear her voice. They can talk about the tough stuff, family stuff. During one conversation, Whitney, the former Olympic hopeful, heard her brother say something she had never heard before from him. I miss you.

She was there for him while not being there.

In a universe far away from swim clubs, a Michael Phelps fan club meets at Howard's Subway in Linthicum. Fred Phelps, a 50-year-old sergeant with the Maryland State Police, sits with his new wife, Jackie. Fred and Debbie Phelps separated seven years ago before divorcing.

Fred and Jackie met at Howard's last year and married just one week before his son competed in Sydney. Fred had brought his son to Howard's earlier to meet the gang. "Fly Michael Fly" buttons were all over the neighborhood bar. That's Fred's boy.

From this distance, Fred thinks of his son, the hometown hero. Fred can go to Meadowbrook and watch Michael practice, but that's awkward. Civilians, as coach Bowman calls nonswimmers, don't really belong there. Fred can call his son anytime, but Michael is now an Olympic swimmer and, no way around it, a celebrity.

"Who am I to impose on his time?" he says.

"His dad," Jackie answers.

Fred Phelps has felt left out in all the stories about his son. "It's like I didn't exist." Maybe he wasn't there to pack Michael's lunch, drive him to practice every morning, but he went to plenty of meets and officiated, too.

"Just because he lives with Debbie doesn't mean I didn't have anything to do with this."

He stops himself. Bitterness and anger talking now, maybe. Listen, Fred says, Debbie has done a great job. This isn't a competition. This isn't about taking credit for something Michael has accomplished, Fred says. "He's the one in the pool. It's his story. It's not Debbie's story. It's not my story.

"I don't want to be standing out there with him - I haven't earned it."

The past is easier to talk about tonight at Howard's. Fred Phelps on his son:

I remember when he was young and got so sick, some kind of blood virus. 104 temperature. I threw him in the police car and got him to the hospital. ... He had a hernia when he was 2. I remember he come out of that hospital room and the first thing he did was crawl in my lap and snuggle up. Who was there when he won the home-run derby? The old man. He punched it! Boom! Launched it! Move over McGwire! You got Phelps coming in!

I taught him a firm handshake, none of this bag of mush. He told me when he was young he wanted to be state trooper. I told him I'd kill him - not in those words, you know.

You look good. Get some rest, come back and kick butt, I told him at Sydney before the finals.

When he gets on those swim blocks, everything else disappears - it's just like when I was playing ball.

I was watching ESPN's "Two-Minute Drill" the other night. Michael was one of the trivia questions.

You don't see people you love as much as you would like.

Sunday in Mount Washington, a refrigerated morning, folks waking up, taking their sweet time. Inside Meadowbrook, Michael is swimming another 9,000 yards in his white Olympic swim cap. His coach, the child psych major, is also at work.

"To this point, what has Michael accomplished in the Olympics? No record. No medal. He's a trivia question on ESPN," Bowman says.

Who is the youngest male to make the U.S. Olympic swim team in 68 years? Michael Phelps of Towson.

"Hopefully," Bowman says, "Michael will do things no one has ever done."

Just four years ago, Bowman first saw Michael swim faster than an 11-year-old body has a right to. "But he had exceptionally poor technique."

We're going to change, the coach mandated, from a two-beat kick in the freestyle to kicking six times to every arm stroke. It took months, heart-to-hearts, tears. It took getting booted out of practice for a week - but the hard-headed Michael converted to the six-beat kick, as champions have before and since.

That was the unheralded turning point. Other turning points are on the schedule.

"Until now, I've done the thinking, and he's done the swimming," Bowman says. That will change. "He needs to take ownership in the management of himself."

Meaning whatever that will mean. "We're also going to work on media training." Get better at the reporter stuff, because the attention has only begun. Have you kissed a girl? Lord help the boy. When are you getting your braces off? They came off Nov. 22, 2000, sports fans.

Michael knows he needs to improve his starts and turns. At the World Cup in College Park in November, Michael won the 200-meter butterfly - the seventh straight race in which he has dropped time since the Olympic trials in August. But he placed third in the 100-meter fly, probably having lost a second on his turns, his coach says. One-hundredth of a second has cost swimmers gold medals. Three-tenths of a second separated Michael from a bronze medal in Sydney.

His swimming strategy should change, too. Given his success, Michael typically swims against his best time, never mind the swimmers in the other lanes - he'd catch those.

"You've got to have more respect for them," Bowman says. "You have to race them more."

So, the education of Michael Phelps continues in what Bob Bowman calls "the next phase of the journey." Michael's new year started with practice, naturally. He didn't get Christmas off, either. He's bound for Paris and Stockholm this month for more World Cup competition. In a way, this is only the beginning.

"The next four years are going to be fun," his mother says over hot cider at Starbucks across the street from the pool. She sounds like she's catching her breath and steadying herself. Take nothing for granted. Don't worry about how the practices are going. Don't go there. Just be here, outside a coffee house, waiting for your son to finish practice, waiting to see if Michael needs anything.

Debbie Phelps on her son:

He's so happy with himself. He'll let me walk arm-in-arm with him at the mall. On my birthday, sometimes he'll get me a rose from Giant ... so innocent. He does things like that - just because.

My OB-GYN called recently and told me she tells everyone in her office that she delivered him.

I don't think he knows how many lives he's touched. He's brought excitement to Baltimore, to families, to children.

He's a great kid - not only in the water.

"Hey, baby doll," Debbie says, as Michael bounds up to the table. Does he ever stop beaming? Will he ever slow down for one second? She hands him $10 so he can partake in his Sunday ritual of an after-practice breakfast at Einstein's Bagels. He shakes our hand firmly, no bag of mush.

Michael flies into a friend's car, and he's off to eat large. His mother watches him go, which is what parents do with their children.

They watch them go so fast.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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