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Phelps' absence gets mixed reactions

Friday, February 12, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 11:04 a.m. CST, Friday, February 12, 2010

COLUMBIA — The pool is ready. The intrigue is high. Athletes have come from all over the globe. It seems the only missing piece from the fourth annual Missouri Grand Prix is U.S. Olympian Michael Phelps.  

Phelps, 24, was scheduled to swim in this weekend’s event but was unable to leave Baltimore because of excessive snow on the East Coast. The impact that will have on the event varies by who you ask.

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Emily Bach, MU Student Recreation Complex spokeswoman, said it is impossible to determine how attendance for the event will be affected.

“We don’t do pre-sale tickets so we have no idea how it will be affected,” she said.

Mike Kelso is an event sales manager for Action Accents, a Des Moines-based swimwear dealer. He has set up a display of Speedo products and Grand Prix event merchandise near the entrance of the complex. Shirts and swimwear grace the tables and catch the attention of people coming and going from the gym.

Kelso’s concern with Phelps’ absence is mainly centered on how it will impact his business for the weekend.

“I think it might affect attendance,” he said. “Most of the people who come to these things are swimmers or parents of swimmers. No one really even knew he was coming until recently. I don’t think people will travel from great distances to come.”

Action Accents is the team vendor for the Columbia Swim Club, and the company always makes an appearance at the Missouri Grand Prix, sectional swim meets and the club’s meets in Columbia. Kelso said the company produces its own line of apparel, but they will feature Speedo since the Grand Prix sponsors the brand.

On Thursday night, dozens of swimmers had already taken to the pool at the Mizzou Aquatics Center. The damp and muggy atmosphere hits full force when stepping onto the pool deck. Backpacks and clothing are scattered across the bleachers; athletes stretch and prepare to get some warmup laps in before the competition begins Friday.

Trish Wright has a son competing for Clovis Swim Club in California. She puts down her book and is eager to talk about the expectations for this weekend.

“The athletes are here for their team and for themselves,” she said. “Swimmers like to push each other.  But, those who were closely ranked to Phelps in events will be disappointed.”

Wright came to Columbia last year and had nothing but positive things to say about the Grand Prix.

“It’s a great meet with a fast pool,” she said. “Great competition, friendly people and well-run. The Grand Prix is a great series.”

The 50-meter pool is divided into eight lanes for the competition, and the dive pool is as well for swimmers to use for practice. A medal stand is set up on the far side of the pool in front of the diving area. The pool deck is hectic as staff members hustle to get everything organized for opening day.

For others, Phelps’ absence came as a disappointment.

Tami Oxley, an MU alumna and former swim team member, also came from California for the event. She has a 13-year-old daughter participating with two other athletes from the Spare Time Aquatics team, based in Sacramento.

Oxley expressed personal disappointment in not being able to see Phelps, but said the meet itself won’t change much.

“It doesn’t change the level of competition here. He’s one person,” she said. “The kids will still get to see other swimmers that they didn’t see in other competitions.”

The team’s head coach, Gilberto Junior, wasn’t shy about hiding his opinion. He said his swimmers were looking forward to watching Phelps compete.

“When you’re not in college you expect to see those guys,” he said. “That’s part of why we like to enter the Grand Prix, and so we can expose our swimmers to college facilities.”

Along with Phelps, Elizabeth Pelton and Felicia Lee are the other U.S. National Team members from the North Baltimore Aquatic Club who cannot make the meet.

Prelims are scheduled for 9 a.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and finals sessions are at 5:30 p.m. Prelims and the Monday session are $10 per session, finals sessions cost $15 each and an all-session pass runs for $60.


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