Will Phelps make history?

RAKESH RAO

IN Athens, this American will be trying to do one better than what his legendary countryman Mark Spitz did 32 years ago. In the 1972 Munich Olympics, Spitz had won seven golds, including three in relays, sinking world records on way to every finish. The feat is unparalleled.

Apart from the Aussie superstar Ian Thorpe, if there is one swimmer who looks set to grab equal, if not more, attention in Athens, it is Michael Phelps.

The 19-year-old qualified in six individual events in the U. S. Olympic trials held in July but dropped the 200m backstroke to concentrate on the 200m freestyle, the two medleys and the butterfly events. He made it in the 4x200m freestyle relay, too, and hopes to join the other two relay teams on the discretion of the U.S. coaches in Athens.

Expectations from Phelps have risen ever since he broke five world records in the World championships in Barcelona last year. Phelps bid for eight gold medal in Athens have already generated enough hype all around. Many experts feel Phelps would attain greatness even if he wins half the number of expected golds.

Swimwear giant Speedo has made an offer of an addition bonus of one million dollars to Phelps for equalling Spitz's record. In his quest to become the new Mark Spitz, Phelps needs to beat Ian Thorpe in 200m freestyle. Phelps knows only too well that his best in the event is two seconds slower than Thorpe's world record.

Already, expectations from the showdown between two of the most sensational swimmers of our times are very high. Phelps will have to win the 100m butterfly in order to get a start in the medley relay. The man standing between Phelps and the two-lapper butterfly gold is teammate Ian Crocker.

In the last World championship, Crocker had won the gold. He bettered his world record and pushed Phelps to the second place in the U. S. trials. Winner of four gold and two silver medals in the last World championship, Phelps re-wrote the 400m individual medley world record in the U. S. trials to show his form. He also holds the world record in the 200m medley where he owns the five fastest timings ever.

Thorpe has already cautioned Phelps about the disappointments attached with chasing and not touching the long-standing record of Spitz. "I think that he's going to walk away from the Games a very successful athlete in the pool. But if he's basing his success, and his reasoning for success, being winning seven or more gold medals, I think he's going to walk away disappointed and he shouldn't." Despite the challenges ahead, Phelps says, "I just have to keep focus and do that I can. It's possible."