He set himself up for a fall

Posted: Tuesday, August 17, 2004

He set himself up for the fall. So maybe it doesn't matter now that Michael Phelps jumped into the pool Monday night with eyes wide open, that a kid who turned 19 only two months ago took his defeat like a man, or even that he risked $1 million just to find out if he could go faster than he ever had before.

And maybe it doesn't matter, either, what Phelps accomplishes the rest of the week because somehow it won't be good enough.

Where's the sport in that?

Say Phelps delivers five more golds to burnish the one he already has.

We'll say we've seen better.

And if he throws two bronze medals on top of that pile?

World records, Olympic records, personal bests?

Even that stuff gets old in a hurry.

Mark Spitz set the bar at seven golds in the 1972 Games, then one of Phelps' sponsor draped a $1 million reward over it and suddenly an improbable quest became an all-or-nothing proposition.

All those things Phelps achieved on the run-up to the Athens Games, those too-young-to-be-true wins and records, those splashes at the U.S. trials that stopped your breath like a stopwatch those are already forgotten.

And if that sounds like too harsh a judgment, too much of a burden to place on a kid even one with broad shoulders and the wing span of a pterodactyl well, somebody should have told Phelps that comes with being a prodigy.

Never mind that Phelps would have had to win the greatest 200-meter freestyle race in Olympic history just to keep pace with the outsized expectations he created. Or that he was stepping up in class against the two of the best middle-distance swimmers in the sport, Australian Ian Thorpe and Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband.

Forget, too, that Phelps delivered a world record in his first swim Saturday night, then stepped in on the relay team Sunday night and swam the fastest leg he ever had. Forget even that he had to swim a qualifying heat in the butterfly an hour after his showdown with Thorpe and van den Hoogenband.

Ducking them isn't part of his makeup.

''How can I be disappointed?'' Phelps asked. ''I swam in a field with the two fastest freestylers of all time and I was right there with them. I wanted to race those two guys and set a best time and I did.''

That's the crazy thing about it. Every time somebody beats Phelps somewhere, even when he was a squirt facing opponents twice his age, he said he could go faster. Every time coaches or rivals counseled Phelps to lower his sights or pick his spots, he said the same thing: He could go faster.

And on a windy, unseasonably cool summer evening, that's exactly what he did.

''He had an incredible swim. He dropped six-tenths (of a second) off his best time,'' U.S. teammate Lenny Krayzelburg marveled, ''it's just that two other guys were better.''

With all the hype that crowded Phelps on the starting blocks, it was easy to forget those two other guys had a little rivalry of their own.

Four years ago at Sydney, Thorpe was the one with the expectations and the hopes of an entire nation pressing down between his shoulder blades. He wound up with three golds, but after van den Hoogenband beat him head-up at 200 meters, that wasn't good enough, either.

When Thorpe warned Phelps that the quest to pass Spitz was like swimming through a minefield, the Aussie got slammed for being jealous. He was just trying to spare the kid some pain.

''Anything short of that will be deemed a failure,'' Thorpe said, ''and I don't want to see that happen.''

It's too late for that now, too late to know how satisfying it must have felt after the greatest freestyle race of all-time, for Thorpe to lean over the rope into van den Hoogeband's lane and say simply, ''Now, we're even.''

Phelps will almost certainly have that chance someday, maybe four years down the road in Beijing, provided this experience doesn't embitter or break him. People who know Phelps say it won't happen, say it can't happen, because even at his age, Phelps has already learned to love the struggle every bit as much as the reward.

''He's a strong man,'' teammate and rival Aaron Peirsol said. ''A tough kid. If anyone can handle it, he can.''

Bob Bowman, Phelps' personal coach and almost his surrogate father, learned that a long time ago. He talked long and hard to his pupil about taking a pass on this race, but he knew he was wasting his breath.

''We had to hope the other two guys came back to him,'' Bowman said afterward, resignation tinging his voice, because he knew how rarely real champions let go.

Bowman knows that Phelps is a champion still, beaten for the moment, but not for long.

The kid won't lay down for the rest of his races, won't be content being the best if it doesn't include beating the best, no matter how the rest of us feel.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.

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