Winning six gold medals in 2004 hasn’t satisfied Michael Phelps. It doesn’t take long to figure that out. Phelps, in Columbia this weekend for the Missouri Grand Prix, follows a grander theme.
“The biggest goal that I have is to change the sport,” he said, “and it’s not done.”
As Phelps stood in front of the pool at the Mizzou Aquatic Center on Friday with a baseball cap hiding his face and sporting facial hair that he said was a result of “being a little lazy,” he blended in well with the MU students at the rec center. After all, Phelps, 21, attends Michigan. But he is a college student intent on revolutionizing swimming.
“People need to look at our sport differently,” he said. “Year in and year out, we need to see more and more fans in the stands. It’s not going to happen overnight, or over 2 or 3 years. I’m consistently looking for things that I can change.”
Diagnosed with attention deficit disorder when he was young, Phelps was known as a hyper kid who never could relax during breaks between youth swimming events. These days, he doesn’t give himself an opportunity to rest. Phelps tries to race in as many events as possible, and this weekend he will compete in the 100- and 200-meter butterfly, the 400-meter individual medley, the 200-meter freestyle, the 100-meter backstroke and the 100-meter breaststroke. It’s all part of the way Phelps challenges himself.
“I like being able to get out and race the best people in the world at every event,” he said. “I know that it’s challenging for me swimming so many events back to back to back. No one has every really tried to do the amount of events that I’ve tried in a meet before. I want to try to do
something that no one has ever done. I’m going to continue to do that until all the goals that I want to accomplish are accomplished.”
One of those goals is breaking Mark Spitz’s world record of seven gold medals in the 1972 Olympics. Phelps competed in eight events in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, but fell short of the record with bronze medals in the 200 freestyle and the 800 freestyle relay. Phelps, though, insisted he didn’t leave Athens disappointed.
“Going to Athens, I said I wanted one goal medal,” he said. “Honestly ... that’s what I wanted. How many people in the world can say they’ve won an Olympic gold medal? Not many, so being able to say (I’m) an Olympic champion is something that I’m proud of, and I’ll continue to be proud of.”
After challenging Spitz’s record, Phelps’ new celebrity status brought on a whirlwind of television appearances, commercials and other celebrity functions. For the young man who embraces his role as the face of swimming, that was a good thing.
“Two or three years ago, people didn’t look at swimming the way they do now,” he said. “We’ve never had people on the cover of newspapers, doing commercials, but since 2004 a lot has changed, I think it’s been for the good. For the next year and a half leading up to (the 2008 Olympics in) Beijing, I think it’s going to continue to change, and swimming itself is going to continue to improve.”
The world may have discovered Phelps in 2004, but he began making his mark on swimming long before. He was groomed to be a swimming prodigy from a young age. The sport was huge in his family. His older sister, Whitney, was an Olympic hopeful who competed in the U.S. Team Trials for the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, but had to cut her career short because of back injuries. Michael Phelps competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympics at the age of 15, making him the youngest American male swimmer to compete in the Olympics since 1932. He failed to medal in those games, but later that year broke the world record in the 200 butterfly, becoming the youngest man ever to set a swimming world record.
Competing at such a high level in a sport at such a young age might have prevented Phelps from having a normal childhood, but he says he learned a lot from older swimmers, helping him improve his skills in the pool.
“I grew up in an environment of excellence,” he said. “Watching Olympians, and seeing how they work out every day, seeing how they prepare for swim meets, you can learn that. I was able to watch how they prepared for their biggest meet. It’s all a learning experience, I’ve grown so much from step one to now.”
Part of that growing up process took place on November 4, 2004. Phelps, 19 at the time, was arrested near his hometown of Baltimore and cited for driving under the influence of alcohol. He was sentenced to 18 months probation. Afterward, Phelps spoke to area high school students about the dangers of drinking and the importance of making good choices. He says he is continuing to mature, but there is still room for improvement.
“I’m definitely nowhere near perfect. There’s still things I can work on and still things I can perfect in and out of the pool,” Phelps said.
Phelps says that desire to achieve perfection and the drive to work as hard as necessary comes from his mother, Debbie Phelps, a middle school principal who raised Michael and his two sisters after their parents divorced when he was 7.
“(She) turned me into the person that I am today,” he said. “That, while working around the clock in a school. She’s constantly working, and trying to work on how to improve her kids, but also how to improve us, her own kids. Being able to see how much time and effort she puts into everything, it sort of brushes off on us, we’re definitely effected by that.”
Phelps will use his work ethic in his training for the next year and a half, hoping to add to his legacy in Beijing.
“I want to be remembered as one of the greatest swimmers of all-time,” he said. “Hopefully with everything I’ve done, and everything I hope to do in the future, I’ll be able to do that.”