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A Time Of Calm For Six-Event Phelps

Jul 25, 2009  - Craig Lord

Michael Phelps is looking forward to a few easier days. That means six events and chasing six performances in finals that he will be happy with no matter where he finishes. He wanted to be clear: "I always want to win". We never doubted it Michael. 

"If I have the race I want to have and someone swims faster than me, so be it," the 24-year-old said in the midst of a new chapter of learning in his life. "It has been a long year, good times, bad times, a lot of really high points and a lot of low points," said Phelps in Rome looking back to a post-Olympic period in which he took six months off and found himself reduced to tabloid fodder courtesy of a snapshot at a party that showed him fooling around in a foolish common among those who go by the name human.

When asked about his changing, maturing relationship with coach Bob Bowman, Phelps replied: "It hasn't changed: he still sees me as a 15-year-old boy."

Bowman, quick as a Machiavellian flash, retorted: "And he still acts like one." Laugher all round. 

The media's respect for Phelps was tangible in a packed hall at the Foro Italico. The word bong was not uttered. He apologised, he sank himself back into welcome routine and he shed 20lbs. Now he faces a  race schedule most would balk at but one that offers relief for the mother and brother of all multi-taskers.

"I don't think I have a full day off, but it is going to be a little different," said Phelps. "I think it's going to be not as stressful, maybe not as tiring - we'll see."

Phelps will race 200m free, 100 and 200m fly and three relays. No medleys and no 100m free, courtesy of a crick in his neck at US trials. His withdrawal from the sprint free race was interpreted as "chicken" by some, including reigning 100m world champion Filippo Magnini, who referred to the American as having "ducked" out.

"It wasn't an excuse as it was stated in the paper by one of the athletes," Phelps said. "I actually wanted to swim that race. But we didn't want to possibly jeopardize something in the future. That was something that we decided that was best for me."

Unwise of anyone to bait a shark. Unwise of anyone to provide Phelps with fuel for what coach Bob Bowman calls his "motivation machine". 

After Rome Phelps will swim against giant basketball player Shaquille O'Neal for reality television. "We haven't decided anything really, the distance and like how big a head start I'm going to give him," Phelps said through a smirk. "Racing a 7ft2 200lb man will be awesome. When they asked me to do it, I quickly said 'yes'."

Bowman added: "I'm going to be coaching Shaq - and they are sewing three bodysuits up together for it right now." It may not help much.

Suit talk will soon be over.  But if there is one man who could probably do what he has done in a brass coat and helmet it is Phelps. He welcomed the suit move because he did not want his efforts tainted by technology. "I like it. I think its going to be good," he said, after noting that the very best in the world were capable of being the best, and "consistently" so in any suit. "That is what I've always done. I put in countless hours and all that time I'm looking at the black line every day." That entitled him to do what he had come to do: race at the world championships "and not talk about suits".

Bowman added: "I  am excited by what today's decision does - return to the sport to those things that matter most, the training and the hard work - and not so much about technology." 

Phelps has 33 world records to his credit, 10 of which were established in the LZR.  Asked how the sport was going to cope with a slowdown, Bowman said: "I don't think that a change in technology will mean that Michael takes a step back. He will have to work harder. He had already broken all of those records that he now holds before all of this. Historically, swimmers have found a way to overcome this ... through better ways of training and technique.”