Phelps Prepares To Swim For Record
ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
The fallout from South Ossetia is reaching all the way to Beijing. The head of Georgia's National Olympic Committee says that nation might pull its 35 athletes out of the Olympics. The decision will be made by the country's president, but in Beijing, the international tensions haven't obscured the athletic headliner: American swimmer Michael Phelps. Tomorrow, he swims for the first of what could be a record eight gold medals.
NPR's Howard Berkes has the story from Beijing.
HOWARD BERKES: At the Olympic swimming pool, the Water Cube, dozens of Olympians from more than a dozen countries swim practice laps: Americans, Russians, Germans, Koreans, Lithuanians. They churn the blue water as coaches shout instructions from the deck.
These are the very best swimmers in the world, and the attempt by American Michael Phelps to rise above them with eight gold medals seems impossible, says Rowdy Gaines, multiple gold medalist himself and a swimming commentator for NBC.
Mr. ROWDY GAINES (Swimming Commentator, NBC): He's swimming 17 events in eight days. I swam four events in eight days in Los Angeles and thought I was going to die. He'll race 3,330 meters, which is over two miles. He'll swim a total of 30 miles.
It just all adds up to just not going to be able to happen, but I think he's going to do it.
BERKES: Gaines says the impossible is possible because of Phelps' endurance. He's able to swim multiple events and recover quickly between them. He's also long and lean, with short legs and a tall waist, size 14 feet and a wingspan of 6.5 feet. He's absolutely amphibious, says veteran Olympic reporter Christine Brennan of USA Today.
Mr. CHRISTINE BRENNAN (Olympic Reporter, USA Today): In some ways, he's called a human boat. The feet that serve as paddles, you know, the arms that could be oars. I don't know that we've ever seen anyone quite like Phelps because of the way he's built.
BERKES: Not since Mark Spitz, at least. Spitz won seven swimming gold medals at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. No athlete has won more golds in one Olympics.
Mr. MARK SPITZ (Olympic Swimmer): I think this Michael Phelps has got a good handle on all the pressure. He knows how to handle it; he's done very well at the Olympics before. He was in the world championships.
Unidentified Announcer: Away they go, the men's 200-meter freestyle final.
BERKES: Michael Phelps swam in this final at the world swimming championships in Australia last year. WCSN.com captured the moment.
Unidentified Announcer: Will it be world record? Phelps, world record. Magnificent.
BERKES: The 23-year-old Phelps won seven gold medals and shattered five world records in that meet alone, and he's been doing this since he was 15. The experience and consequent calm showed at a packed pre-Olympic news conference in Beijing.
Mr. MICHAEL PHELPS (Olympic Swimmer): I haven't said anything about going after any record. I'm just going out there and trying to do something that I want to do and, you know, we're going to work through this week, this next week and a half, and then hopefully try to accomplish our goals.
BERKES: Phelps described a relaxed Olympic village life, playing cards and video games in between practice sessions at the pool. If he's stressed, he doesn't show it, which ought to stress out his competitors, says Olympic swimming medalist Rowdy Gaines.
Mr. GAINES: He puts the fear of God into everybody else that races against him, so everybody's racing for second. The mentality of them because of his success and now his longevity is one of submission.
BERKES: The notable exception is American teammate and buddy Ryan Lochte. He and Phelps both swam world-record times in the 400-meter individual medley at the U.S. Olympic trials in June. Phelps eked out the win. Their head-to-head battle and Phelps' first attempt at a record eight gold medals begins here in the Olympic Water Cube this weekend.
Howard Berkes, NPR News, Beijing.
SEABROOK: Michael Phelps made his first splash in the Water Cube today. He set an Olympic record in an early heat of the 400-meter individual medley. He and Ryan Lochte have their first face-off tomorrow in the 400 final.