As Michael Phelps narrowly missed breaking his 12th world record at the Spring National swimming championships in Orlando last week, his coach, Bob Bowman, stood at the edge of the pool, biting his program and pondering how his 18-year-old prot�g�'s brilliance makes life so complicated for both of them. Phelps had just won the 200-meter backstroke in 1:55.30, the second-fastest time in history and just .15 of a second off the world record set by Aaron Peirsol of the U.S. two years ago. Not a bad showing, considering that the event may be Phelps's ninth best and did not appear to be a race he would swim at the Athens Olympics. "This makes it real interesting," Bowman said, scratching his head after the race. "How does he not swim it this summer?"
The more pressing question might be, How does he? Phelps's mastery of yet another event creates a potential logistical nightmare. His chief sponsor, Speedo, is offering him a $1 million bonus if he can match Mark Spitz's 1972 feat of winning seven gold medals, but the 2003 grad of Towson (Md.) High has a chance to surpass Spitz. Phelps is expected to enter eight events, seven in which he'd be a prohibitive favorite to win a medal: three relays, the 100 and 200 butterflies and the 200 and 400 individual medleys. Before his eye-opening performance in Orlando, the 200-meter freestyle was thought to be the logical choice as the eighth event. Phelps is the world's fourth best in the event but it would be his only final on Aug. 16. If he swims in the 200 back, an event in which he would be a medal favorite, he will have three races in an hour on Aug. 19: the finals of the 200 back and 200 individual medley and the semifinals of the 100 butterfly.
Of course any swimmer would love to have Phelps's problem. In August he became the first male swimmer to win five races at the Summer Nationals, and he equaled that haul in Orlando. His 20 career U.S. titles are the most of any active male swimmer, and he doesn't turn 19 until June 30. "I don't think we've seen anything like him," says U.S. backstroker Lenny Krayzelburg, a triple gold medalist at the 2000 Olympics. "Nobody's this good in everything. There is an aura about him around the pool."
A polite, sometimes playful teenager (he likes to sneak up on teammates and make weird faces at them) who has a love of cars, video games and hip-hop, Phelps comports himself with cool confidence on the pool deck and holds to demanding standards. Last Saturday, Phelps won the 200 individual medley by nearly 10 meters. His time, 1:56.80, was 1.36 seconds faster than anyone else has ever swum the event, but .86 of a second off his world record. "My freestyle is really off," he said afterward. "This race tells me I need to go back and start training again."
On heavy training days Phelps swims up to 20,000 meters in double sessions. On a lighter day, such as Feb. 7, the day before he flew to Orlando, he swam 16 100-meter sprints (the first 50 meters a second or so off his race pace, the second half at race pace, with only a 30-second break between sprints). The self-flagellation is because Phelps hates to lose. At the world championships last year he finished second to teammate Ian Crocker in the 100 butterfly. After Swimming World put Crocker on its cover, Phelps taped it to his bedroom wall for motivation.
Bowman is also a perfectionist. After the Spring Nationals, he spoke of Phelps's slow starts in Orlando and the lack of balance in his freestyle technique. "When Michael breathes to the right, he doesn't come back far enough to the left," Bowman said. "I'm splitting hairs here, but at most meets I'd give him an A or an A-plus. This was an A-minus. We have a lot of work ahead, a lot of races."
Phelps's next major race will be at the Olympic trials in Long Beach, Calif., in July. He has qualified and registered for 11 races, but he won't swim in all of them. After he qualifies he'll decide which events will make up his run at history in Athens. "Nothing is impossible now," Phelps said after last week's 200-meter backstroke final. "Nothing is off the table."