Swimming: Fabulous Phelps silences critics

By David Leggat

It is game on for Michael Phelps, one down, seven to go in his quest to be the greatest of all Olympic swimmers.

Make that, the greatest of all Olympians.

Those sceptics who doubted his ability to eclipse Mark Spitz's seven golds in one Games - Munich, 1972 - should rethink their reservations. When Phelps won the 400m individual medley gold in the Water Cube in the first final of the Beijing meet yesterday, he laid down a marker.

Phelps won in a world record 4m 03.84s and while it can be easy to treat world best achievements at the big meets as ho-hum these days, this was something special.

The 23-year-old from Baltimore did not merely chisel a few 10ths of a second off the old mark - held by M. F. Phelps at 4:05.25 - he demolished it, completely bypassing the 4m 4s barrier.

A few minutes later, Australian Stephanie Rice announced Australia's presence with a world record of her own in the women's equivalent race, flogging American Katie Hoff's mark by 1.67s in clocking 4:29.45. The Aussies have grand designs on the Olympic programme too, so it was some start to a meet which promises to go down as one of the most memorable in Olympic history.

Phelps is a remarkable physical specimen, with his jug ears, gawky grin, elongated top half on top of relatively short legs. But get him wet and it all comes together to devastating effect.

Yesterday, he had a pulsating tussle with fellow American Ryan Lochte and Hungarian Laszlo Czeh for a time. Czeh actually led after the first 50m of butterfly but once they turned to start the final 100m of freestyle there was only one outcome.

When they came off the wall for the final time, Phelps' phenomenal kick shot him a length clear and that was that.

This was no will he-won't he go under the world mark cliffhanger. You knew from halfway that it was going to happen. Czeh and Lochte gave Phelps the shove he needed, not that it was required.

And doing it in front of President George Bush probably contributed to Phelps' emotion on the dais.

If you think Phelps, who won seven world titles in Melbourne last year, should be used to this sort of thing, think again.

He swallowed hard, bit on his lower lip. His eyes moistened, all of which gave a graphic pointer to what it meant to the young man on the cusp of Olympic history.

What also may have contributed to his state of mind on the podium was the knowledge that it might have been his last 400IM.

"We had a deal," Phelps said, referring to his coach Bob Bowman. "I told him I wanted this to be my last 400IM. He said 'it has to end on a record'.

Bowman's take on why Phelps appeared tight behind the blocks was that it was to be expected "when you look up and see the president standing there".

Phelps has now won seven Olympic golds. No one has collected more than nine, which is shared by four athletes, including Spitz.

If Phelps completes his mission he will have soared to 14.

So why is he that good?

"Any time you think you are close to reaching him, he jumps to another level," said Czeh.

Added Bowman: "He never tries to do a quantum leap. He just takes one more step."

The staggering part was that it all looked so comfortable.

"That time was so fast we might have a hard time topping it," Bowman added.

If you can persuade him back for another crack, don't bet on it coach.

Michael Phelps:

Age: 23 (date of birth: June 30, 1985).

Place of birth: Baltimore, United States.

Career achievements:

Seven gold medals at 2007 World Championships (200m freestyle, 100m butterfly, 200m butterfly, 200m individual medley, 400m individual medley, 4x100 freestyle relay and 4x200 freestyle relay).

Five gold medals at 2005 World Championships (200m freestyle, 200m individual medley, 4x100 freestyle relay, 4x200 freestyle relay, 4x100 medley relay).

Four gold medals at 2003 World Championships (200m butterfly, 200m individual medley, 400m individual medley, 4x100 medley relay).

One gold medal at 2001 World Championships (200m butterfly).

Previous Olympic results:

Six gold medals at 2004 Olympics (100m butterfly, 200m butterfly, 200m individual medley, 400m individual medley, 4x200 freestyle relay, 4x100 medley relay).

Two bronze medals at 2004 Olympics (200m freestyle, 4x100 freestyle relay).

Phelps is chasing fellow American Mark Spitz's 1972 record of seven wins at a single Games after coming close to matching his mark at Athens four years ago when he collected six golds. He has entered eight events.

He has an unusual physique with a long torso and comparatively short legs, providing minimal resistance in the water.

- NZ Herald

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