Phelps at home Down Under

Phelps at home Down Under

This is not Michael Phelps’ first circus. So when he arrived at the Gold Coast Aquatic Centre on Tuesday morning and saw that the 10-lane 50-metre racing pool was quickly filling with competitors for the Pan Pacific Championships, he wove his way through the crowded deck and beneath the corporate boxes.

He stopped at an eight-lane, 50-metre training pool that is also part of the sprawling outdoor complex.
There were few people around when Phelps, a 22-time Olympic medalist, slipped into the water. By the time he made his second turn, the hush had been shattered by a rush of photographers and camera crews assigned to shadow the global superstar of Australia’s national pastime.

“It’s cool,” Phelps said after his hourlong workout, “because the attention they give swimming is something we’d all like to have in the sport.”

In a poll conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics after the 2012 Olympics, swimming and soccer were found to be the most popular participatory sports among Australians between the ages of 5 and 14. To be an elite swimmer here is to be revered.

One night during the 2000 Sydney Games, a few US men’s basketball players walked unbothered in Olympic Park, while members of the United States’ swimming dream team, led by Lenny Krayzelburg, were quickly mobbed by autograph-seeking fans.

“That’s the wild part about swimming here,” Phelps said. “It’s absolutely insane.”

The 2000 Olympics were Phelps’ first competition as a national team member. Only 15, he placed fifth in the 200-metre butterfly in the competition, in which Australia’s Ian Thorpe, a freestyler, became an instant icon with five medals, including three golds.

“I think everybody remembers watching him compete, watching him really dominate,” Phelps said.
Clearly, nobody was paying closer attention than Phelps, who turned the next three Olympics into a stretch limo of a star vehicle.

The Pan Pacific Championships, created by the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan as an alternative to the European Championships, are Phelps’ first international meet since he won six medals, including four gold, at the London Games.

For Australians, whose interest in swimming is proprietary, Phelps’ aborted retirement is a mixed blessing. Excitement at having the world’s most gawk-worthy fish back in their waters is tempered by their memories of his hostile takeover of their sport.

In 2007, a year before Phelps won eight Olympic gold medals to supplant Mark Spitz as the most decorated athlete in a single Games, he held what amounted to a preview performance at the world championships in Melbourne. With the host Australians looking on in disbelief, Phelps broke Thorpe’s six-year-old world mark in the 200-metre freestyle on his way to winning seven golds, one more than Thorpe’s competition record.

“There were so many people who said that world record would never be broken,” Phelps said, adding: “The significance of breaking it in his home country was definitely something that was very big. It kind of quieted them from saying things aren’t possible.”

What Phelps did in Melbourne was pour chlorine on a country’s collective wound.
“I think we’d like him a lot more if he was Australian,” Brenton Rickard, an Australian Olympian, said with a laugh.

In the 4x100 medley relay at the 2008 Beijing Games, Rickard, a breaststroker, collected his second medal, a silver, while Phelps won his record eighth gold. Other than Rickard’s medals, his favorite Olympic memento, he said, is a photograph taken during the award ceremony. It shows Rickard and his team-mates in the foreground, basking in the moment with Phelps and the other Americans, all of them linked in history. “Ian will always hold a special place in Australia’s heart,” Rickard said. “But Michael is well loved. I think Australians do appreciate how special he is and everything he’s done.”

Australians can definitely appreciate how amazing it is that Phelps posted a 51.17 in the 100 butterfly, the fastest time in the world this year, at the recent USA Swimming long-course nationals only four months after resuming his competitive career. Thorpe ended a retirement of almost four years to try to qualify for the 2012 Olympic team in the 100 and 200 freestyles. At the Australian trials, with two years of training behind him, he finished outside the top eight in both.

Thorpe’s comeback, widely seen as unsuccessful in a country that turns its eyes to the Olympic prize, has clouded how many Australians view Phelps’s reboot.

“People talk about harming legacy and those types of things,” Rickard said. “But I think it’s people on the outside that think that way. I think people close to the sport appreciate they’re doing what they love, so who are we to say whether it’s good or bad?”

Chris Wright said Phelps’ return was all good. Wright, 26, is Australia’s three-time reigning national champion in the 100 butterfly. He lists Phelps as one of his sporting heroes. “I’ve always followed his career, and to see him so dominant really made an impression on me,” Wright said.


New York Times News Service

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