That tour de force not only earned Phelps the 2003 Sullivan Award as the nation's best amateur athlete but also raised the possibility of his challenging Spitz's Olympic record—a topic that has shadowed Phelps for the past year. "His name comes up in every interview, guaranteed," Phelps says of Spitz, whom he had never met until last month's U.S. trials. "That's O.K. He was the man, the icon."
The parallels between the two swimmers are limited. In 1972 Spitz was a former college superstar (at Indiana) who had already won two gold medals in Olympic competition and had a reputation for cockiness. Phelps is just a year out of Towson (Md.) High (he has deferred his college plans) and finished fifth in the 200 butterfly in Sydney. While he does not lack for confidence or style, he tempers his public image with a big kid's mellow cool.
Moreover, Phelps's Olympic swimming schedule is more varied, and arguably more difficult, than Spitz's was in '72. "Mark swam the freestyle and butterfly, which are the two most technically similar strokes, and he swam 100 and 200 meters, which are virtually the same event," says 1976 Olympic champion John Naber. "Also, the U.S. relays were almost guaranteed to win three gold medals in those days."
Phelps will use all four strokes to cover distances from 100 to 400 meters, and two of the three relay teams on which he's expected to compete won't even be clear favorites. He could swim as many as 20 races (Spitz swam 14) in eight days and enter five individual events (Spitz swam four). On Aug. 19 Phelps will have to swim the 100-meter butterfly semifinals just 21 minutes after he finishes the 200 individual medley final. And whereas Spitz entered the Munich Games as the world-record holder in all of his events, Phelps holds world marks in three of his (the 200 and 400 IMs and the 200 butterfly) and is ranked No. 2 in the world in the others (100 fly and 200 freestyle). "It's going to be a tough Olympics program for Michael," says Ian Thorpe, Australia's swimming superstar, who'll face Phelps in multiple races.
Spitz knows that better than anyone. "I think Michael is capable of winning seven, just like I was capable of winning seven," he says. "But a lot of things had to happen just right for me. And the U.S. relays were unquestionably stronger in 1972, relative to the competition. I hope he does it. It would be great for the sport and great for Michael. And it's already been great press for me that he's trying."
Phelps has never publicly professed his desire to win seven gold medals. In a carefully planned posture, he will admit only to chasing one. "To stand up on that podium and hear the national anthem would be awesome," he says. "Swimming has changed a lot since Spitz's day. People specialize more. So for me it's win one gold medal and after that, whatever happens, happens."
Calculated or not, that attitude befits Phelps, who is trying to not get swept up in the trappings of fame and fortune. He has been surrounded by the same core of close friends since he was in fourth grade, guys like Matt Townsend (a student at Salisbury State) and Ayo Osho (Maryland). Like Phelps, they love the Ravens and hate the Yankees.
"We play Texas Hold 'Em but not for money," Townsend says. "We play Xbox and PS2. Sometimes we just hang out and watch movies. He's a great friend. There's no way anyone would know that he's somebody famous, with all these world records." Pause. "Of course I stayed over at his house the other night, and by the time I got out of bed, he was already coming back from his [7 a.m.] workout."
Fog dances across the surface of the pool, 20 minutes past sunset in mid-June. Trees sway in the cool wind. A long day of age-group racing is nearly finished at the Meadowbrook Swim Club in North Baltimore when Phelps climbs atop a starting block to swim the anchor leg of the men's open 400-meter freestyle relay, the final event. Dozens of children and parents crowd the side of the pool to watch the would-be Olympic hero in his final tune-up before the U.S. trials.
He has been coming to this pool since age five. It was here that he scampered about, begging snacks from swim moms while his two older sisters trained and raced. It was here that he blossomed into a prodigy at 10, crushing older swimmers yet enduring their taunts about his outsized ears, which he tucked beneath baseball caps-one Michigan (a school he grew up wanting to attend), one Orioles. It was here that Phelps watched his sister Whitney, five years older than he, rise to the favorite's role at age 15 for the 1996 Olympic trials, only to miss the team, a disappointment that he says left the family devastated. And it was here that his new coach, Bob Bowman, met with divorced parents Fred and Debbie Phelps in the fall of 1997 and told them that their 12-year-old son could someday swim in the Olympics.