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Phelps Is a Fish Out of Water

Times Staff Writer

World domination in the pool was almost easy compared to complexities of household chores, such as figuring out how to put the right soap in the dishwasher, replacing batteries in the fire alarm and trying to have breakfast without cereal bowls on hand.

Michael Phelps, thy name is improvisation.

If nothing else, the eight-time Olympic medalist can change on the fly. After all, he holds the world record in the 200-meter butterfly, and gold medals at that distance and in the 100 butterfly at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

So at home he found an empty sports drink bottle and tried to pour cereal into it, sought assistance in tackling a truly dangerous task, laundry, and called his coach and mentor Bob Bowman one day last week when his fire alarm wouldn’t stop going off. Bowman suggested changing the battery.

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“One of the things I’ve tried to do at Michigan is stay away as much as possible from his life away from the pool, and to let him make his own mistakes and learn from them,” Bowman said Monday, noting the fire alarm phone call was one of the exceptions. “He had to learn the hard way sometimes.”

The end result?

“I know he’s stronger, a lot more mature,” Bowman said. “He’s been through some things that have helped him grow as a person, which I think are very good. I think he’s on the right track. Handling things better ... he’s basically grown up. It happens.”

That might be the most intimidating thing for swimmers in the other seven lanes, not only at the Olympics in Beijing in 2008, but at this week’s U.S. Swimming National Championships in Irvine. Bowman’s answer was also in response to whether Phelps could end up being better in Beijing.

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Erik Vendt, who has been training against Phelps for the last four months in Ann Arbor, Mich., didn’t hesitate when asked whether his friend and rival, Phelps, would be better than in Athens, when he won six gold medals.

“I think he can be better in Beijing from the simple fact he’s gotten older and stronger,” Vendt said.

“His other events are getting stronger, or you could call them his least-strong events. They are now just as strong as his best events.”

The evidence could come Wednesday when Phelps swims the 200 freestyle, taking aim at Ian Thorpe’s world-record time of 1 minute 44.06 seconds, set in 2001.

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“Even if Ian comes back and swims a best time ... Michael could break that world record. That’s a pretty big goal of Michael’s, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw that this week,” Vendt said.

Irvine will offer something of a first look on the road to Beijing, as it is a qualifier for the Pan Pacific Championships later this month in Victoria, Canada, and the World Championships next year in Melbourne, Australia.

Phelps is scheduled to swim six individual races -- starting today with the 400 individual medley -- and among other things, wanted to send a message across the ocean to his Hungarian rival, Laszlo Cseh, who will swim that race at the European Championships in Budapest, Hungary, later this week.

“He swims the last day of the meet here, so I’ll swim before him. Hopefully, I can set something up that will get us excited,” Phelps said on the pool deck at the Woollett Aquatic Center in Irvine.

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“This is the biggest meet besides trials. If you don’t make the team here you’re out of international competition the next two years. Getting ready for this was the big focus over the summer and over the past year since worlds.”

His motivation, of course, goes beyond Cseh. In addition to the 400 individual medley and the 200 freestyle, Phelps is scheduled to swim the two butterfly races, the 200 individual medley and the 200 backstroke. The 200 backstroke, on the final day, represents a formidable challenge against Aaron Peirsol, the Olympic gold medalist and world-record holder.

“I like to race the best in the event,” Phelps said. “And Aaron hasn’t lost really since right after Sydney [in 2000]. I enjoy getting in the water and racing the backstroke. We’ve gone at it a few times, Santa Clara, nationals once or twice, [Olympic] trials. We’ve had a few races and they’ve all gone his way.”

Peirsol of Austin, Texas, who will race in a venue once essentially his home pool, was saying all the right things Monday.

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“We don’t need to swim against each other that much but when we do, we always swim fast,” he said.

Phelps has a knack for finding motivation in places where others can’t seem to do so. He made a point of going out of his way to praise Vendt on a conference call last week, and did the same thing Monday morning. Vendt, who owns two Olympic silver medals in the 400 medley, came out of competitive retirement in April, and his arrival in Ann Arbor has energized their training sessions.

Vendt’s presence and Phelps’ struggles at the 2005 World Championships in Montreal have combined to produce a rededicated swimmer. Five gold medals and a silver would be career meets for some, but Phelps called it “the biggest wake-up” of his career as he did not make the 400 freestyle final and went through the competition without setting any world records.

“One of the things that’s hard for people to realize is that since Michael was 11 his progression has [been] like this,” Bowman said, making an upward gesture. “There’s been never any downs, till after Athens.

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“When you go through one year like the year we had in 2005, you start to think, ‘I wonder if he’ll ever come back. Or if this is it. Or is this going to a version of what it used to be?’ To see him do the things he’s done this summer, and the training, it’s just been a lot of fun, to know he actually can be better.”

Phelps appeared on the pool deck at the media session with a thin-looking mustache. Hmm, was this another pursuit of all things Mark Spitz? First, Spitz’s seven gold medals and now the full-bodied mustache of Spitz’s prime?

Not likely.

“I had the full facial hair yesterday. We were kidding around. I totally forgot I had media today ....It’s more of a jokester look. Don’t think anybody can take me seriously talking to me like this,” Phelps said.

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Phelps blends his self-assured aura in the pool with a genuine self-effacing streak. He told stories about his household mishaps the other day on a conference call, laughing when he recalled putting hand soap in the dishwasher.

“It started getting all bubbly, and there were bubbles all over my floor when I walked downstairs into my kitchen, like little soap suds,” he said.

Phelps has gotten the hang of those tricky household chores. But don’t start calling him Martha Stewart.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” he said.

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*

THE FACTS

* What: U.S. Swimming National Championships.

* When: Today-Saturday.

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* Where: Irvine.

* SCHEDULE: D8


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