Phelps finds that extra gear

Aug 3 2009 - 8:48pm

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(The Associated Press) Michael Phelps of the U.S. swims to the gold medal of the Men's 4x100m Medley Relay in Rome on Sunday.
(The Associated Press) Michael Phelps of the U.S. swims to the gold medal of the Men's 4x100m Medley Relay in Rome on Sunday.

ROME -- His words sounded quaintly hopeful, rather than pretentious.

Whether Michael Phelps was in Barcelona, Athens or even Long Beach, Calif., at big meets and small ones, he resolutely stayed on message since 2004.

Phelps spoke of wanting to elevate the sport during non-Olympic years, keeping swimming afloat once the last anthem was played. Elbow room on the ESPN crawl and highlight shows in 2009 and 2010?

You almost felt like saying: Good luck with that.

It seemed a far more difficult prospect than winning the eight gold medals he took home from Beijing a little less than a year ago.

Years from now, Phelps' greatest accomplishment at the World Championships may not have been that barrier-breaking, epic victory against Milorad Cavic of Serbia in the 100-meter butterfly, one of his five gold medal results in Rome. (The last one came Sunday in a world-record performance in the 400-meter medley relay with teammates Aaron Peirsol, Eric Shanteau and David Walters in 3 minutes 27.28 seconds). How about putting swimming on the front pages and national sports shows three years removed from the London Olympics?

"He had something he wanted to do. Like this," said Phelps' longtime coach Bob Bowman, gesturing to the packed house of a pool at the Foro Italico complex. "To have this live on NBC, that's exactly what he wanted to do."

That, in part, was why Phelps decided to go forward when he could have packed away his Speedo LZR Racer after the Beijing Olympics. There was a matter of unfinished business to consider when he mulled a possible retirement after the publication of the bong photo in a British tabloid in January.

"It's a start," said Phelps, who had two individual golds, one silver medal in the 200 freestyle and three gold medals in relays. "For me, I just have more things I wanted to do. That's why I wanted to come back. I don't care if anyone says it's a bad idea or not. It's something that I wanted, and that's why I'm doing it."

Granted, the elevation of swimming in Rome came from something of a perfect storm -- his first international meet after the tabloid controversy, polyurethane bodysuit chaos and perfect foils in the pool for Phelps, one new (Paul Biedermann of Germany) and one old (Cavic).

And the world records. Always the records. Who can forget the excess of speed?

"I'm sure it made it more fun with all the records," USA Swimming's Mark Schubert said. "But I'm sure glad to see it going back to normal."

There were 43 in the eight-day meet, four more world records coming on the final day. Many of the records, mostly fueled by the performance-enhancing buoyant bodysuits (which will be banned in 2010) will stand for a "long time," as veteran Dara Torres put it.

Coaches will have to lower the bar of expectation, at least in terms of time, when the new suits are no longer allowed in January. But maybe it won't be as difficult as it may appear.

"In some strange way, it kind of opened the door," said Peirsol, who lowered his world mark in the 200 backstroke here. "You almost stopped creating a barrier for yourself. You go beyond what you thought you could do."

That held true for Phelps in Rome. His mental toughness carried him, compensating for the six months of training missed after Beijing. He wasn't happy with his splits in the first two relay wins or his performance in the loss to Biedermann in the 200 freestyle but got better as the meet went along.

"Last night's victory in the 100 fly, that kind of says it all about Michael," Schubert said. "That was a such classic race. Both guys went extremely fast, under the world record.

"I think Michael would be the first one to tell you that his preparation wasn't the same as it was in Beijing. His mental toughness is just ... you really can't compare it to anybody."

Schubert is wondering how Phelps and others will adapt once the the suits, including the LZR Racer, are banned.

"The only thing I'm a little concerned with is going to be our whole mental switch with the times, because Michael is very time-driven and records have been important to him," he said. "But it's going to be important that he do that mental switch.

"To me, the race with Cavic was all about racing, and he is all about racing."

There's always that quote to get Phelps to find that extra gear. Phelps is also motivated by "small things," using it to pull himself out of bed and plunge into a cold pool and train.

"I never want to look back at my career and ever have a what-if, what if I did something different?" he said. "After London, if I can look back and say that, then I consider my career a success."

 

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