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Tuesday, September 19
Phelps exceeding expectations

INDIANAPOLIS -- Since becoming the youngest American male swimmer to qualify for the Olympics in 68 years Saturday night, Michael Phelps sprouted three inches and smashed five more age-group records.

Actually Phelps is still a gangly 6-foot-3, and he didn't set any records by finishing 20th in his 200-meter individual medley race Sunday in the U.S. Olympic trials at the Indiana University Natatorium. But given Phelps' otherworldly growth in and out of the pool this year, no hyperbole can be considered too preposterous.

Michael Phelps
Michael Phelps can't legally drive alone, but the 15-year-old has license to swim the 200 butterfly at the Olympic Games in Sydney after Saturday's second-place finish.

Not that Phelps' story needs any embellishment. The truth about the always-grinning 15-year-old phenom from Towson, Md. is hard enough to believe.

He hasn't lost to anyone his own age in any swimming event in three years. He's cut more than seven seconds off his time in the 200-meter butterfly in less than a year. His coach at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, Bob Bowman, has lost count of how many age-group records Phelps holds.

"Maybe 20?" said Bowman, who's been coaching Phelps since he was a 5-foot-3, 95-pounder four years ago. "It's a bunch of them."

After beating everyone in the 200 butterfly but world-record holder Tom Malchow Saturday night, age-group records have suddenly lost their significance. Phelps lowered his personal best three times this week, and his finals time of 1:57.48 made him the fourth-fastest American ever and the eighth-fastest in the world this year.

"I think he can drop more time," said Bowman. "How much I don't know."

No one knows how fast Phelps can go, partly because he is such an anomaly. While barely-pubescent women Olympic swimmers are commonplace, including 16-year-old Megan Quann and 17-year-old Kaitlin Sandeno this year, boys usually have to wait until their late teens or early 20s to have a legitimate shot at qualifying.

"Girls hit puberty much earlier than boys," said Gabe Mazurkiewicz, who coached two teenage sisters, Dana and Tara Kirk, in the Olympic trials. "They gain strength faster but still have their small bodies. I've been in this business for almost 30 years and I've never seen anything like (Phelps)."

Added Malchow: "Michael Phelps is awesome. He's way ahead of where any other 'flyer has ever been at his age."

Conventional wisdom says that younger athletes will get psyched out at their first Olympic trials. Then again conventional wisdom says 15-year-old boys aren't supposed to be here.

"Some of these kids are like Fastskin (the new high-tech swimsuits)," said Neil Walker, who qualified for his first Olympic team this year at age 24. "Fastskin sheds the water off and the kids let everything slide off them the same way."

One possible reason the pressure doesn't get to Phelps is that he might be too young to fully fathom it. After all, he's still just a video-game playing, rap-music loving teenager who hasn't even taken sophomore English yet.

Phelps sleeps nine hours a night and has grown four inches since January. He lives in suburban Baltimore with his mom, a schoolteacher, and his dad, a Maryland state trooper. He enjoys lacrosse and soccer and used to be a big Baltimore Orioles fan, until recently.

"They traded all the great players, like B.J Surhoff," he said, momentarily losing his ever-present grin.

Phelps started swimming at age seven, following the lead of his two older sisters, including 20-year-old Whitney, who competed here in the 1996 Olympic trials. He has a girlfriend back in Maryland named Carolyn, braces on his bottom teeth and shaves maybe once or twice a month.

But underneath the Generation Y veneer lies the heart of an intense competitor. Although Phelps is disarmingly shy in interviews, he possesses immense self-confidence.

Earlier this year, he revealed to his high school paper that one of his goals was to make the 2000 Olympic team. Never mind that no other American male had done so at such a precocious age since 13-year-old Ralph Flanagan in 1932.

"I always thought about making it and how neat it would be," he said. "But I didn't talk about it too much. I didn't want to jinx it."

Mission accomplished. Now what is he predicting in Sydney?

"To improve my time, then take whatever happens," he said, smiling of course.

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