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Strokes of genius?: Phelps abandons his strong events to improve weaknesses

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Michael Phelps is taking some time off from his relentless pursuit of first-place finishes, world records and Olympic medals.

After enjoying unprecedented success in the swimming pool last summer, Phelps has embarked on a new challenge: expanding his repertoire to include events that will test his versatility, conditioning and resolve.

At the world championships next week in Montreal, Phelps will compete in eight events, just as he did in the 2004 Summer Olympics.

But his workload won't be the same. He has replaced two of his world-record events, the 200-meter butterfly and 400 individual medley, with the 100-meter and 400 freestyles.

"I think it will make things interesting, keep me on my toes," Phelps said Monday, shortly after a workout at the University of Maryland.

Phelps set five individual world records at the 2003 world championships before capturing a record eight medals (six gold) at the 2004 Olympics. It's too early to start worrying about the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, so for now Phelps is going to have a little fun in the pool, even if it means finishing behind Australian Grant Hackett in the 400-meter freestyle.

"It's really easy for Michael to get bored with the 400 IM -- done that, been there," U.S. men's coach Dave Salo said. "Michael understands his legacy. I think he wants to go down in history as probably the greatest swimmer we've ever had in this country, if not the world. So he's willing to take on the top guys, and if he gets a bronze medal once in a while, he's OK with that because he can come back and do better."

If Phelps beats Hackett, great. If he doesn't, well, so be it.

"I think this is more of a learning year than anything else. Everything is really baby steps until Beijing," Phelps said. "Obviously, the big picture is three years from now."

By taking on new challenges, Phelps might be sacrificing a win or two at the world championships. But ultimately, the United States' swimming program should benefit from his decision to broaden his workload.

Swimmers who figured their place on the 2008 Olympic squad was secure now face the prospect of being challenged by Phelps, who hinted that he just might try everything except breaststroke and the 1500 meter freestyle.

"What Michael does to U.S. Swimming is challenge the guys. It raises the bar," Salo said. "I think the rest of the world is slowly but surely catching up to Michael. Our own Americans have to say, if I want a shot at this I have to catch up to Michael, too."

Phelps' shuffled program at the world championships was devised by his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, assistant coach of the U.S. men's team.

"He's abandoned his super-duper events, but he's swimming as many events as he did in the Olympics," Bowman said. "I have put him at somewhat of a disadvantage because he's swimming some events in which he's hardly favored. Of course, everybody will still expect him to win. But I'm trying to look toward what his ultimate goals are, and see if we can make things happen that will help it along."

There isn't much left for Phelps to accomplish, except perhaps a suitable encore in Beijing.

"I never thought by the age of 20 I'd have eight Olympic medals and would be leading a dream come true, being a professional athlete doing something I love," Phelps said. "It's all fun. I'm having a blast doing it; I couldn't ask for anything more."


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