Bob Bowman, senior coach at North Baltimore Aquatic Club and coach of Michael Phelps for the many years, chuckled when he was asked, many years ago, if Phelps could extend his arsenal.
Since establishing himself as the globe’s elite flyer over the 200-meter distance, Phelps has spent so many years expanding his range. The proof is present in his world records in both individual medley events and his standing as the second fastest man in the 100 fly.
Still, in his constant search for greatness, the months leading to Athens was revolving around new endeavors. Already the owner of a national championship in each event, Phelps was to continue his maturation process in the 200 backstroke and 200 freestyle.
Additionally, ventures were planned in the 100 and 400 freestyle events.
Of course, everything is by design. In an attempt to guarantee a place on the 400 freestyle relay in Greece, Phelps dedicated enhanced concentration to the 100 free in that year, confident that his performances would land a relay berth.
“One thing that carries me is my versatility. I’m proud of that,” Phelps said. “Working with (Bowman) at such a young age, he’s worked on everything with me, and that’s helped me get to where I am. It’s all paid off.
“The 100 free will be a big event for me this year. It’s a goal to make that relay, but it’s going to be the hardest thing. I don’t have that sprinter’s speed, so I have some work to do. The biggest thing is getting back on the (medley relay) at night.”
Without peer in each of the individual medley events and the 200 fly, Phelps harbored some unfinished business in the 100 fly. It’s an event in which Phelps has developed a splendid American rivalry with Ian Crocker, the world-record holder and the man who spoiled Phelps’ run at four individual gold medals at that summer World Championships in Barcelona. Additionally, Crocker bounced Phelps from the 400 medley relay that set a world record in Spain.
As if he needed it, the defeat to Crocker has provided motivation. More, the setback resembled Phelps’ loss to Tom Malchow at the Pan-Pacific Championships a year earlier.
“I was disappointed not to be on that relay,” Phelps said. “I think that will push me. The same thing happened with (Tom Malchow at the 2000 Olympic Trials when Phelps finished behind the then world record holder). That gave me something to work for. This was something else I could work toward.”
It’s been so many years, yet it remains a piece of Americana. It has never been matched. Truthfully, it’s hardly been challenged. In less than a year, though, Phelps would make a push at what might be considered the finest achievement in Olympic sporting history.
What Mark Spitz accomplished in Munich during the 1972 Games is the stuff of legend. After falling short of his predictions in Mexico City in 1968, Spitz uncorked a week of stunning swims. The man won seven gold medals, and four of the individual variety. He shattered seven world records. He became a household name, parlaying his success into millions of endorsement dollars.
Could Phelps duplicate the feat? Well, he’s going to give it a shot.
“The way I view it is this:” Bowman said of the chase of Spitz. “I think it’s exciting to think about, and it captures the attention of the public. From that perspective, it’s a worthy goal. The value is that it could be a vehicle he uses to improve. As an end, it’s not something we can sit back and think about. I believe it’s possible, but the conditions must be right.”
Let’s get something out in the open. Those days and age was a completely different era than 1972. Did Phelps have the potential to match Spitz? Yes. Simultaneously, Phelps had to deal with a handful of factors that made this adventure difficult to complete.
Globally, the competition level had expanded during the last three decades and, individually, Phelps had to face challenge after challenge. In relay action, not only needed Phelps to assure himself a slot on each squad, his teammates must click on their relay legs. Regardless if Phelps unloaded the fastest splits in history for his relay efforts, his contributions account for only 25 percent of the performance.
Beyond competition, Phelps was staring at a media blitz. If he wanted to be the American Golden Boy, he’d have to handle the constant spotlight. Was the task doable? Definitely. Difficult? Certainly.
Finally, Phelps needed to determine his individual schedule for his European assault. Would he swim the individual medley events and both butterfly disciplines? Would he substitute the 200 back? Perhaps the 200 free? His options were endless.
In a historical event, Phelps was chasing history, and he deserves credit for his boldness. He deserves credit for accepting a monumental challenge, a task only he was capable of handling.