Even before a single Olympic medal has been hung around his neck, Michael Phelps is rewriting the manual on what it means to be a world-class swimmer. Entered in five individual events and a candidate for each of the three relay races in Athens, Phelps has the potential to win eight gold medals, and eclipse the standard held by Mark Spitz, who won seven golds in 1972. It's a long shot, but no one is better prepared to do it. Just 19, Phelps holds the world record in three of those five individual events and is a fingernail's distance from the record in a fourth.
In a sport in which most athletes would be happy to qualify for one event, that he can try for eight medals is amazing. Trained in the individual medley, an event that requires mastery of all four swimming strokes, Phelps possesses a phenomenal ability to compete with the best specialists in three of those strokes--butterfly, backstroke and freestyle. In the fourth, the breaststroke, he's merely outstanding. In fact, at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials last month, Phelps became the first swimmer to qualify for six individual events. (He will drop the 200 backstroke in Athens.) "He is really redefining our expectations of swimming excellence," says Pablo Morales, a two-time Olympian in the butterfly and Phelps' role model. "He is blazing his own trail now, and there is probably a whole global army of young swimmers who are looking up to him."
His talent in the pool propelled Phelps to turn pro at age 16, before graduating from high school. He is an anomaly in the swimming world, a multimillionaire with endorsements from Speedo, Argent Mortgage, Visa, Omega, AT&T Wireless and PowerBar. If he equals Spitz's haul of seven golds from a single Games, Phelps will earn an automatic $1 million bonus from Speedo.
Money isn't enough, though. Phelps wants to make swimming matter. He sees the attention that Americans lavish on their swimmers every four years evaporate between Games, and he desperately wants what Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe has--the prestige, the celebrity and, not least of all, the marketing clout to stand, here in the U.S., with the best athletes. "People don't think about swimmers when they look for athletes to sponsor," he says with some frustration. "You don't see a swimmer doing a Sprite commercial. We have so many other sports to take [people's attention] away from swimming. But if something good happens this summer, that may change."
Phelps' biggest impediment on the way to swimming history may well be his own teammates, many of them Olympic medalists and world-record holders. And then there are the Australians, with a younger and deeper men's team that would dearly love to grind the Americans into chum. They are eager to write the coda to their 4 x 100-m medley-relay defeat in Sydney, where U.S. swimmer Gary Hall Jr. had claimed that the Americans would "smash [the Australians] like guitars." The Aussies won the next two relays, on the back of Thorpe, and mockingly played air guitar in a pool-deck celebration. The first stanzas of their Greek chorus have begun; Thorpe has called Phelps' attempt at a Spitzian haul of golds "ridiculous." Phelps' response: "He's saying he doesn't think it's possible for him to do that. I don't think I would say it's impossible." If that were any frostier, they'd have to speed skate to settle it.