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Swimming
Brian Cazenueve
August 06, 2001
Butterflying Michael Phelps may be wet behind the ears, but he was fast beyond his years at the worlds
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August 06, 2001

Swimming

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Butterflying
Michael Phelps may be wet behind the ears, but he was fast beyond his years at the worlds

At the world swimming championships in Fukuoka, Japan, last Friday, Michael Phelps sat in the press room of the Marine Messe arena and eyed a newsletter headline that read WORLD RECORDS FOR TEENAGE SENSATIONS IAN THORPE AND MICHAEL PHELPS. Sure, Phelps, 16, had just swum 1:54.58 to shatter the world mark in the 200-meter butterfly for the second time in four months, but to share top billing with a legend, albeit a contemporary one, was to be in uncharted waters. "Awesome," Phelps crowed. "He's like all-world."

And all-worldly. Thorpe, 18, shed his teenage awkwardness long ago. He hired an agent at 14, became a Qantas spokesman at 15, met the Australian prime minister at 16, won five Olympic medals in Sydney at 17 and recently started a foundation to aid disadvantaged children. Thorpe comports himself with a confidence and sophistication beyond that of most adults, and he can swim a little too. In Fukuoka he set personal bests in each of the seven events he entered, won six gold medals—the most ever at a world championships—and broke world records in four events (the 200-meter freestyle, 400 free, 800 free and 4 x 200 free relay). In the 4 x 100 free relay Thorpe, swimming the anchor leg for Australia, overcame a deficit of nearly a body length in the last 30 meters to edge Anthony Ervin of the U.S. team, which was later disqualified for having used a swimmer not officially entered in the event.

Thorpe's training has changed little since last year, but his turns are now more fluid and his pacing is improved. "At this rate he'll surely be the greatest swimmer who's ever lived," says Kieren Perkins, an Australian freestyler who won gold medals in Barcelona and in Atlanta. "But being that fast is not as impressive as being that together." So sure of himself is Thorpe that he felt free to criticize the drug testing policies of FINA, swimming's governing body, during the worlds (saying testing was too lax), and when he returns to his home ii the Sydney suburbs, he feels free to set the nutritional agenda for his parents. "I eat better when Ian's around because we cook what he wants," says his father Ken, a retired gardener. "He doesn't allow sweets when he's home."

He's there a lot less often these days. Since the Olympics, Thorpe has attended parties for Giorgio Armani and Jennifer Lopez, met Queen Elizabeth, visited the Royal Palace in Monte Carlo and accepted an invitation to see Chelsea Clinton, who had told him in Sydney, "If you're ever in Washington...." Thorpe was playing catch with the First Daughter and the first dog, Buddy, last year when a helicopter plopped down on the White House lawn. "Oh look, my dad's home," said Chelsea.

There were no snazzy invites for Phelps after he set his first world record in the 200,1:54.92, at the U.S. nationals in Austin in March. He returned home to Baltimore and wanted to celebrate over dinner with his sister Hillary at a local Cheesecake Factory. Told there was a two-hour wait, they moved on, unwilling to try to play the celebrity card. "I couldn't have," says Phelps, a junior at Towson (Md.) High. "Out-side my school, people don't know who I am. It doesn't compare, me and Thorpe."

It does in some ways. With his race in Austin, the swimmer who has been called the U.S. answer to Ian Thorpe supplanted Thorpe as the youngest male swimmer ever to set a world record. Both teens have mothers who are schoolteachers and older sisters who made their national swim teams. Both wear their success modestly.

There the parallels end. Thorpe has made millions from swimming, through contracts with Adidas, Coke and Omega, and has had his nickname, Thorpedo, trademarked. Phelps is still an amateur (though that may change soon). At 15, Thorpe won his first car; at 16, Phelps is waiting to get his learner's permit. Thorpe fancies films; Phelps prefers PlayStation. As Thorpe was bracing for another round of globetrotting, Phelps was getting his braces off, the better to devour his favorite meal—lasagna, pretzels, cheeseburger subs and a waffle cone filled with French vanilla ice cream and Butterfinger bits.

A post-teen rivalry is conceivable, because Phelps swims the 400-meter individual medley and Thorpe may one day add that to his repertoire. "The advice I would give Michael is not to limit your expectations by your age," says Thorpe. "It's a great time learning the person you'll become, so enjoy it."

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