In late June, Australia's former Olympic swimming coach insisted that 18-year-old Baltimore phenom Michael Phelps had accomplished "nothing in the world" when measured against five-time Olympic medalist Ian Thorpe. "People trying to say [ Phelps] is a greater swimmer than Ian—absolute nonsense," said Don Talbot. "The promise with Phelps is there, but for people saying he's going to outdo Thorpie, I live to see that day."
That day came sooner than Talbot expected. Last week at the world championships in Barcelona, Phelps became the first swimmer in history to break world records in two individual events on the same day—smashing the 100-meter butterfly and 200 individual medley marks on Friday—and the first to break five world records at a world championship. He also became just the third swimmer (after Mark Spitz and Germany's Michael Gross) to simultaneously hold world marks in four individual Olympic events (the 100 and 200 butterfly and the 200 and 400 IM).
Give an assist to his coach, Bob Bowman. He knows locker room fodder when he reads it, and he promptly slipped a story containing Talbot's quotes into Phelps's mailbox at the Maryland aquatic center where the recent high school graduate trains. "It definitely lit a fire under my butt," Phelps said last week in Barcelona, where he won six medals, four of them gold. (He lost one of his world marks on Saturday, when teammate Ian Crocker eclipsed the 100 fly record.)
In their first head-to-head matchup in a world or Olympic final, Phelps soundly defeated Thorpe by nearly two body lengths in the 200 individual medley, lowering his own world record by 1.48 seconds, to 1:56.04. Only 46 minutes earlier Phelps had won his 100 butterfly semifinal in 51.47, erasing the world record that Andrii Serdinov of Ukraine had set in the previous semifinal. Astoundingly, Phelps's time at the 50-meter turn, 25.11 seconds, was the slowest of all 16 semifinalists. His back half, 26.36, was faster than his usual freestyle split.
The next day Phelps swam an even faster time, 51.10, in the 100 fly final, only to finish second to Crocker's 50.98. The runner-up made no attempt to hide his disappointment. "Yeah, I hate losing," said Phelps, who finished fifth in his only event, the 200 butterfly, at the Sydney Games. "I'm sure as I think about the [ Athens] Olympics, it'll fire me up all winter."