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Thursday, July 15, 2004
Phelps likely won't keep public attention long

By Eric Adelson
ESPN The Magazine

LONG BEACH -- When Michael Phelps took his first strokes in the 400 IM final here last week, he was greeted with a memorable sound: silence.

Michael Phelps
Michael Phelps needs to dive in and take the lead on the U.S. swim team.

Yes, he got a nice ovation when he walked to the starting block. Yes, the crowd stood and shouted as he chased and reached a new world record in his final lap. But the biggest cheers of the entire week were for Aaron Piersol when he beat Phelps and set a world record in the 200-meter backstroke. The next morning, a local headline read, "Not so fast, Phelps!"

Why is Phelps appreciated, but not adored? Why isn't Phelps cheered for what he is -- a once-in-a-lifetime swimmer?

"People talk like this is the beginning of a trend," says legendary Texas coach Eddie Reese, who coaches Peirsol and Ian Crocker. "You need to know it's not. He's really special."

Phelps' endurance and superiority is unmatched in swimming history. No other American swimmer has ever qualified for six individual events. Unless something odd happens, he will take home seven medals from Athens. Eight. He should bring home at least five golds (400 IM, 200 IM, 200 fly, 400 IM relay and 400 free relay -- assuming he's included on the team), and he has a shot at three more. That means Phelps has a legitimate chance at the greatest single Olympic Games achievement in history.

Phelps is the Secretariat of his sport. So why doesn't he have Smarty Jones' appeal? There are more than a few possible reasons for these attitudes.

  • "Who cares? It's swimming!" Most anyone in a bar can name eight great basketball players, football players, basketball players, even hockey players. How many can name eight swimmers, men or women? This is a shame, but it's the truth. Maybe Marion Jones' struggles and the BALCO scandal will make the 2004 Games the swimming Olympics. But even if it does, Phelps will get drowned out by NFL talk by the day after Closing Ceremonies -- if not earlier.

  • The fans aren't exactly rabid. Swim fans are mostly polite, pleasant and usually have great teeth. Not much face paint here in Long Beach, unless Coppertone qualifies. And let's be honest: The rowdiest fans are usually from working classes. Not many blue collars here besides those on Izod button-downs. No tailgating or fight songs. And although the crowds were spirited, they weren't all sellouts. Swimming meets are like tennis matches, except more serene. So the Phelps' word-of-mouth doesn't spread as fervently as talk of a Ray Lewis sack.

  • "Phelps hasn't done anything yet, so let's wait until the Olympics." This attitude is also a shame. How many world records does he need? Five's not enough? If Albert Pujols led the majors in five categories, he'd be smuggled to Cooperstown tomorrow. Remember when Kobe Bryant averaged 40 points a game for an entire month? What Phelps has done in these trials is like averaging 100. Swimmer Lenny Krayzelberg says Phelps is the best swimmer of all time even if he skips the Olympics. The notion that he shouldn't be in the 400-free relay because he didn't qualify is preposterous. Do the Red Sox bench Manny Ramirez because he took a couple of games off to rest?

  • "Phelps isn't a ready-made-hero, like Mary Lou Retton or Mike Eruzione." There's something very accessible about swimmers in general that Phelps doesn't seem to have. Piersol, Krayzelberg, Ian Thorpe, Jenny Thompson, Natalie Coughlin and Amanda Beard have those neighborhood personas. Phelps is so focused it seems he could be swimming in a pool by himself. He rarely reaches across lane barriers to offer congratulations, and his expressions of satisfaction rarely go beyond a fist pump and a thoughtful stare. Sit down with Phelps at his favorite breakfast place and you'll see he's just as happy-go-lucky as Sammy Sosa, but not many fans see him in any sort of normal setting.

  • "Aren't the Olympics about underdogs?" Yes, and this might be Phelps' biggest problem. Think of all your favorite Olympic heroes. How many were underdogs? How many looked stunned beyond words when they won gold? All of 'em. Everybody likes America for its rags-to-riches identity, but nobody likes America for it's lone superpower rep. Phelps is all superpower and no rags-to-riches. He doesn't have a heartbreaking family history, like Thompson. He doesn't have a turbulent swimming past, like Coughlin. He doesn't even have much of a personal story, like Krayzelberg. Phelps is 19 years old and lives with his mom. He drives a tricked-out SUV. He listens to Eminem. He survived a difficult divorce, but he doesn't want to talk about it. So even though he awes, he doesn't inspire. He'll give us pause, but not chills. Phelps' greatest burden is expectations, including his own for himself.

    And speaking of which, Phelps swims like a man possessed. So why is he saying he wants to win just one gold medal? This cannot possibly be true. Otherwise he would be as thrilled with second place in a trials final as Coughlin was when she barely lost the 100 free. Perhaps Coughlin would be happy with one gold medal, considering her past struggles with sickness and injuries. Phelps? He wants to take the sport where it's never been. He wants to be an icon of swimming. He wants to be to his generation what Mark Spitz was to Phelps' mother: a hero. He can't do that with just one gold medal. Or even four.

    Phelps should embrace his role as the nation's best swimmer, and then the nation will follow. Barry Bonds might not be the most popular guy, but no one faults him for wanting to pass Hank Aaron. Lance Armstrong is the source of spite in a good part of Europe, but he fully intends to make Miguel Indurain a cycling also-ran. Nobody blames Maurice Greene for wanting his world record back, or for touting himself as the fastest man alive. And no matter what's said about Bonds, Armstrong or Greene, any right-minded sports fan would go for the record books if he or she had the talent. So should Phelps.

    Michael Phelps might be cursed as the favorite, but there is nothing more compelling than unprecedented domination. In three weeks, we will see a performance we have never seen before and might never see again. That should be enough reason to watch, and maybe cheer a little.

    Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN Magazine. E-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com.