ABOVE: MICHAEL PHELPS IN 2004. PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRIS TROTMAN/NEW SPORTS/CURBIS.
Describing Michael Phelps is difficult. Words like winner, champion, even Olympian, don’t begin to encompass what he represents to a world that watched him make history. As of last week, the 27-year-old swimmer is the most decorated Olympian of all time, with 22 medals. He also holds the all-time record for most gold medals, coming in at 18. To put that into perspective, if Phelps was his own country, he would hold a place in the top 60 in modern Olympic history. His 22 medals would place him barely under both India and Ireland. America’s new swimming sweetheart, Ryan Lochte, has a long way to go.
After marking his retirement with a record-breaking finish, it’s hard to imagine the Baltimore Bullet as a rookie. We take a look back at time when Phelps was just a 2004 Olympic hopeful: a teenage kid with a predilection for French vanilla ice cream, DMX rap songs, and of course, winning.
by Allen Barra
They Call Him The Baltimore Bullet, And He’s Aiming for Athens—Not To Mention The Record Books.
There are eerie similarities between Michael Phelps, the 19-year-old American Olympic swimming hopeful, and Mark Spitz, the winningest swimmer in any single Olympic games. They are the last two swimmers to capture the imagination of the sporting public, they both won the James E. Sullivan Award as the nation’s top amateur athlete, and after the Athens games, both will have participated in Olympics overshadowed by terrorism and conflict in the Middle East.
There is, however, one important difference between the two: Spitz emerged from the Olympics as a household name, while Phelps will likely enter as one. The son of a Maryland state trooper father and a schoolteacher mother, Phelps recently maintained that he is just a normal teenager. Which, in some ways, he is: He likes French vanilla ice cream served in waffle cones and covered in Butterfinger chips, and he pumps up before races by listening to DMX’s “Party Up,” particularly the extended version, which runs for nearly nine minutes. What sets Phelps apart is that he holds five world records in swimming (set at one meet, the 2003 FINA World Championships) and more than a half dozen endorsement deals totaling seven figures.
A full two months before Phelps hit the Olympic pool in Athens, his agent was able to declare, “We’ve had to turn down media… Every fifteen minutes in his life right now is accounted for.” If Phelps wins seven gold medals as Spitz did in the ’72 Munich games, he may have to start listening to shorter rap songs.
THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE JULY 2004 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW.
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