After winning the 200-meter backstroke at the U.S. National Spring Swimming Championships in Indianapolis on April 2, 17-year-old Michael Phelps spoke to reporters from the discomfort of a flimsy folding chair. It was the only time all week that Phelps, the boy wonder of U.S. swimming, came close to being unseated. Over the next two days he won the 200-meter freestyle and the 100-meter butterfly, making him the first male swimmer to win U.S. tides in three strokes at the same competition. "He's raising the bar in swimming the way Michael Jordan did in basketball," says Tom Wilkens, a U.S. bronze medalist in the 200 individual medley at the Sydney Olympics.
Phelps was 15 at those Games, the youngest member of a U.S. Olympic swim team in 68 years, and the spotlight has been on him ever since. He finished fifth in the 200-meter butterfly in Sydney and set the world record in the event in March 2001, supplanting Australian star Ian Thorpe as the youngest male swimmer to break a world record. "It's a mistake to call Ian Thorpe the best in the world," says U.S. backstroker Lenny Krayzelburg, a triple gold medalist in Sydney. " Thorpe is good in freestyle; Phelps is good across the board."
Expectations were that Phelps and Thorpe would square off on Sunday in a dual meet between the U.S. and Australia, but Thorpe stayed home with a virus, postponing the confrontation until the worlds this July in Barcelona.
Not that the two won't be in the same pool before then. Later this month Phelps will travel to Sydney, at Thorpe's invitation, to train with him for three days. "I'm eager to see how he strokes, kicks, turns, how he handles attention," Phelps says. "I want to learn everything I can from him."
Unlike Thorpe, who allows himself the odd rest day, Phelps, a senior at Towson (Md.) High, swims every day that he isn't traveling. If Phelps has a flaw, it's his tendency to glide too long into turns, losing up to a tenth of a second per lap. "The work ethic has always been there" says his coach, Bob Bowman, but he has had to work on his confidence.
When Michael's mother, Debbie, a schoolteacher, started him swimming at age seven, he took to the backstroke first because he feared having his face underwater. Even as his strokes grew more fluid, he took time to grow into what is now a 6'3", 165-pound frame.
After an unnerving press conference three years ago, in which reporters asked personal questions about his girlfriend, Phelps grew leery of the media. These days he takes classes in which he critiques tapes of his interviews.
On Sunday, before Phelps set a world record in the 400 IM and a U.S. record in the 100 butterfly against the Australians, Debbie had hung up a banner with a motto that also adorns Michael's bedroom wall: ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS. Half a world away, Thorpe was listening.