This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's March 1, 2004, issue. Subscribe today!
THE NAME has come up only once, on a bus in Japan nearly three years ago. Michael Phelps had just broken his second world record, in the 200 butterfly. He was 16. After accepting all the congratulations, taking all the media's questions and rinsing out all the chlorine, Phelps boarded a Team USA bus and fell into the seat next to his coach, Bob Bowman. For a moment, the two sat in their usual comfortable quiet. Then Phelps turned and asked, "Who is Mark Spitz? What did he do?"
Bowman's mind raced. This kid is a world record-holder, an Olympian, and he doesn't know who Mark Spitz is? "Mark Spitz," Bowman replied, "won seven gold medals in one Olympics." Phelps absorbed it for a second. "Pretty good!" he said approvingly. The bus lurched ahead. They resumed their silence. And that is the only time the coach and his prodigy have ever discussed Mark Spitz.
HERE IS Michael Phelps now, still four months shy of his 19th birthday, taking his seat at a greasy spoon after a January morning practice with the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. He downs two egg-and-cheese sandwiches, a western omelet, a bowl of grits and a stack of chocolate chip pancakes. He laughs as frequently as he chews. You'd never know that fellow Olympian Lenny Krayzelburg calls him "more dominating than any athlete in the world, by far." Or that there is $1 million waiting for Phelps if he wins as many gold medals in 2004 or 2008 as Spitz did in 1972. Or that billions of eyes will soon be planted on his wide back. Ask Phelps if he wants to match Spitz, and he smiles and says, "I don't think about that as a priority." Ask him what seven gold medals means to him, and he answers, "The best Olympic performance in history. That's it."
That's it. Phelps has an easy way about him, but don't be fooled. He burns. He wants what LeBron James, Derek Jeter and Lance Armstrong have: icon status. More than anything, he wants what Australian idol Ian Thorpe has: the kind of rock-star popularity to put swimming on the lips of his countrymen. At age 16, in his first meeting with future agent Peter Carlisle, Phelps declared, "I want to change the way America views this sport."
To do that, he'll need to do more than become the world's greatest swimmer. Spitz's legend -- seven events, seven golds, seven world records -- was built when the Olympics were more about meaning and less about marketing. Three decades since Munich, pro leagues like the NBA and the NFL have risen from pastime to addiction, and even the most cherished Summer Games memories seem to fade by NFL fantasy draft day. Winning four or five or even six golds may not be enough to make Phelps' dream come true in today's best-obsessed America. To change swimming, he has to beat a 54-year-old California investment adviser who just might be the greatest Olympian ever. Because when the torch is lit this August in Athens, it will be Mike vs. Mark in the greatest match race that never was.
Phelps might already be the most gifted swimmer ever. "If you're putting a human being together from science," says Rowdy Gaines, winner of three golds in '84, "this is what you want." Start with pterodactyl arms (Phelps is 6'4", but his wingspan measures nearly 6'7"). Throw in oversized hands and feet (he wears size 14 shoes). Then combine a long torso with powerful legs and flexibility that would make a Pilates instructor blush. Even Spitz says, "He has more talent than I had."
And that's just the beginning. Phelps' endurance defies even the highest standards. Swim 100 meters fast, and you'll feel your arms, legs and lungs burn. That's your body exhausting its oxygen after digging into fast-twitch muscles, causing lactic acid buildup.
After a race, most swimmers measure a lacticity of 10 to 15 millimoles per liter of blood. Team USA physiologist Genadijus Sokolovas has measured 5,000 international swimmers over the past 20 years, and he's never seen a world record-breaking swimmer with a postrace lacticity count under 10. Phelps' count after breaking a world record last year: a mere 5.6. So while most swimmers take 20 to 30 minutes to recover from a race, Phelps bounces back in 10 to 15.
Not bad for a guy who's never lifted a barbell. Bowman favors endurance training for teens, which means Phelps won't hit the weights until after Athens. What could that mean for '08? "He could probably go two seconds faster in a 100-meter race and four seconds faster for 200 meters," Sokolovas says. "In a sport where world records progress by tenths a year, that's amazing." In a world of speedboats, Phelps is a hydroplane.
Make that a tricked-out hydroplane, because Phelps could qualify for more Olympic events than Spitz ever dreamed of. Most competitive swimmers specialize in one or two strokes: Spitz dominated in butterfly and freestyle; Thorpe is more or less a freestyle ace. But Bowman trained Phelps in all four: back, breast, fly and free. The results astound. Last year, Phelps lowered the nine-year-old 200 medley world record four times, by nearly three seconds, in a period of 41 days. At a meet against the Australians in Indianapolis, he competed in the 400 medley (a marathon), the 100 fly (a sprint) and the 200 fly (a middle-distance event) in two hours. He won all three races, breaking the world record in the medley and coming within three hundredths of a second of the 100 fly mark. For the year, he broke eight world records. And at the '04 spring nationals in February, he won five individual titles, tying his own record.
"He's a once-in-a-generation athlete, at the very least," says Swimming World editor in chief Phil Whitten. Adds three-time Olympian Gary Hall Sr., a teammate of Spitz's at Indiana: "What Mark Spitz did was incredible, but to do it today is 100 times harder. You have everybody specializing. To see this kid come up and do this ... we may never see another opportunity like this."
In Krayzelburg's mind, Phelps is something else: "Even if Michael doesn't win one Olympic medal, to me he's still the greatest swimmer of all time."
Oh, but he's not. Not yet. "Mark Spitz," says Gaines, "is the greatest swimmer in history, hands down. That includes Michael Phelps at this stage. As harsh as this sounds, a swimmer's life depends on what you do in the Olympic Games." Even Bowman says, "To be the greatest, you have to be an Olympic gold medalist."
If only it were that simple. Tracy Caulkins was every bit as versatile as Phelps. She won three golds in 1984 and held the American record in all four strokes -- the only swimmer to do so. But she is hardly considered the greatest of all time. Matt Biondi won 11 Olympic medals, as many as any American, including seven in 1988 (five golds). But when Biondi failed to match Spitz, the cameras spun away. Thorpe is even considered a slight disappointment, despite three golds in Sydney, because he finished second in the 200 freestyle. To Olympic fans and media, the silver medalist is merely the first person to lose.
Before winning his sixth gold in Munich, Spitz debated with his coach whether to risk racing the 100 free. "Six golds," the swimmer said, confident the U.S. would win the upcoming medley relay, "sounds a lot cleaner than six golds and a silver." (He had predicted six golds for himself in 1968 but came away with only two, both in relays, along with an individual silver and bronze.) Most Americans have long since forgotten that three of Spitz's golds from Munich came in relays, where the U.S. dominated. His perfect performance, just like the Miami Dolphins' perfect season the same year, has outlived the fact that the competition wasn't nearly as imposing as it is today. Says John Naber, who won four golds and a silver in 1976, "From the American public's perspective, seven golds are better than 10 medals of any color."
Phelps' agent knows this all too well. In a sports era defined as much by plotlines and potential as actual performance (see Clarett, Maurice), Carlisle proposed and negotiated a $1 million bonus from Speedo if Phelps wins seven golds in Athens or Beijing. Carlisle's thinking? If Survivor can rope in millions of viewers this way, why can't Michael Phelps? "People will view the Games a little differently," he says. "I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. Reality TV is popular stuff right now. You have to acknowledge it."
Especially when today's Games are drowning in competition. When Spitz swam, there was no cable, no Internet, no PlayStation. Monday Night Football was in its infancy; Magic and Bird weren't even a twinkle in the NBA's eye; NASCAR was a regional sport. Spitz's seven made him the biggest sports star in the U.S. and one of the most recognizable faces in the world. (Phelps' mother, Debbie, grew up in a house with a poster of Spitz proudly framed on a family-room wall.) Even if Phelps wins eight golds in August, swimming will be submerged by pennant races come September. While media coverage of the Games is more intense than ever, the Olympic moment doesn't flicker much longer than the flame itself.
Put it this way: ESPN ranked Spitz as the 33rd- best athlete of last century. The Magazine ranked Phelps' unprecedented five world records at the Barcelona world championships as the 63rd-most significant event of 2003, between the fourth-place finisher in the Tour de France (62) and the women's college basketball player who refused to salute the American flag (64).
Ah, yes, political context. Spitz, who is Jewish, won his seventh gold the day before terrorists took Israelis hostage in the Olympic Village. Today, America stands as the world's lone superpower, and sports have transformed from a stage for the playing out of geopolitical aggression into an entertaining escape from tense reality. Spitz's agent called his client the greatest American hero since Charles Lindbergh. Carlisle would never pull such a stunt in a post-9/11 world.
"Michael Phelps has got a long road ahead of him," says Gaines, who, like Caulkins, missed what could have been his best Olympics when the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games in 1980. "The terrorist attacks happened after Mark swam, but that cloud was hanging over him. Jesse Owens ranks ahead of Carl Lewis, but Lewis did a lot better if you think about it. I don't think Mark will ever be erased from people's minds as the greatest."
So is Phelps dreaming? Is he living in some far-off world? Well, yes. And that's the point.
THE CALM and solitude of the water called to Phelps from an early age. His mother, a school administrator, and father, a state trooper (now retired), had separated and reconciled before their only son was born. But, as Debbie Phelps says, "It was never 100 percent okay." Michael's older sisters, Hilary (now 25) and Whitney (23), found refuge swimming at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, the same venue where their brother now trains. (The club has produced five gold medals since the 1984 Games.) "I took a lot of anger and beat it out, just me and the bottom of the pool," says Whitney, whose own promising career with the U.S. national team was derailed by back injuries. "I didn't have to listen to people yelling or bickering and complaining. It was my escape."
Fred Phelps moved out for good when Michael was 7, around the time Michael started swimming competitively. Mother and son became closer -- best friends, really -- but they never discussed the divorce. Three days after Michael's high school graduation last year, Fred dropped by Debbie's townhouse. Michael told him he was giving his two complimentary airline tickets to the world championships in Barcelona to Debbie and Hilary. Fred grew upset, and Michael got in his face. "It got pretty heated," Debbie says. Fred skipped Michael's graduation party the next day; the two have barely spoken since. "It's been very difficult," Fred says.
And yet, as Michael runs into turbulence, his swimming becomes more seamless. He has always been fidgety out of the water ("I can't sit still"), but put him anywhere near a pool, and he's completely at ease. "Swimming is normal for me," he says. "I'm relaxed, I'm comfortable and I know my surroundings. It's my home."
Ask Bob Bowman what makes Phelps so special, and he doesn't mention torso length or lacticity levels: "He's had the same mental approach since he was very young. There is nothing on his mind. He's able to block everything out." Bowman tells a story about that day Phelps won three races in two hours in Indy. Before the meet, the coach sidled up to his star next to the warm-up pool. "So," Bowman said, "how's it going?" Phelps wheeled, glared and growled, "I've been waiting all year for this day!" Shocked, Bowman simply nodded and walked away. "I've never seen such confidence and intensity," he says. "I knew right then he was going to do something special that day." And since that day, he hasn't said a word to Phelps before a race.
"Swimming," says Spitz, "is lonely." The swimmer's mightiest challenge is to tune out. It's the only sport where you can never know exactly how well you're doing until it's too late to do anything about it. There is no sound of footsteps or trash talk or heavy breathing in the next lane, just the muffled roar from fans who may be cheering for winners or screaming for losers. There is no other reality but the water, and any distraction from this dreamlike state -- the recollection of an earlier conversation, the vision of a girl -- can ruin a race. "The mind can wander very easily," Naber says. "That's the difference between giving 98 percent and giving 100 percent." Or the difference between a world record and last place.
So why hasn't Spitz reached out to Phelps? Because the only advice he has is to tune out Mark Spitz. Before the Olympics in Sydney, Thorpe asked Spitz to share his wisdom. Here's what Spitz said: "Do your own thing and never deviate or compromise from that. They're going to ask you about me. That's going to wear on you." He knows this because he once had his own ghost to battle.
Before the Munich Games, the greatest swimmer ever was Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan in the movies after winning five golds in 1924 and '28. When Spitz walked out to the platform with three individual golds already won and an unparalleled fourth in the balance, he heard a voice from the stands: "Hey, Mark! Mark!" He looked up and saw Weissmuller sitting next to Kirk Douglas, waving frantically. "Mark! It's me, Johnny Weissmuller! Good luck!" When Spitz thinks about old legends interfering with young dreams, he thinks about Johnny. "I heard him," Spitz says. "But it wasn't going to inspire me."
What did? "The innocence of never having done it," he says. "What I think will be the biggest nemesis for Michael is to maintain that innocence."
BACK IN Baltimore, his breakfast done, Phelps lets his mind drift way past seven golds. "You can't put a limit on anything," he says. "The more you dream, the farther you get. I broke five world records in one meet. If that's my goal, then that's where the line is drawn. I can only imagine. If you don't, you sell yourself short and you never reach your potential."
He is still just 18. He won't quit competitive swimming after this year, the way Spitz did after two Olympiads, at age 22. Maybe Phelps will win four golds in '04, eight in '08 and 12 in '12. Maybe he'll win that million bucks and become the richest swimmer in history. Maybe a horde of boys will buy racing suits this fall so they can be like Mike. Maybe this Michael will revolutionize his sport after all.
Whatever goals are locked away in a young swimmer's imagination, there is a 54-year-old investment adviser in California with gray hair, seven golds from one fortnight and his own thoughts about sharing his legacy.
Says Spitz: "I'd like to see him do it."
Eric Adelson, who worked for The Magazine for 10 years, is now a writer for Yahoo Sports.