Phelps takes plunge

ALISON KORN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:15 AM ET

Michael Phelps, the U.S. swimmer who won a record eight Olympic gold medals in Beijing last summer, will tackle shorter distances this weekend in Montreal, knowing full well he may not win.

He already has lost twice, but he's taking his lumps. Good for him. But why would a top athlete willingly leave his comfort zone and endanger his winning streak?

"I think it's fun for him. It makes it interesting," said Swimming Canada's CEO and national coach, Pierre Lafontaine. "It gives you a different mental edge and mental rest, and that makes it exciting."

Consider this difference: A world-class time for the 100-metre freestyle, one of Phelps' new events, is 47 seconds. For the 400-metre IM, one of his specialities that he's not racing, his world record is four minutes, 3.84 seconds. Those two events require seriously different skill sets and Phelps doesn't have the same raw speed off the blocks as the sprint specialists. He's better known for his endurance.

"I think an athlete wanting to experience the other events is really healthy for the sport," Lafontaine said. "Great champions hate to lose. Sometimes they hate to lose more than they like to win, and that motivates them even more."

In Santa Clara, Calif., last Sunday, Phelps finished second behind a Canadian, defending world champion Brent Hayden, in the 100 freestyle. Hayden touched in 48.44 seconds, while Phelps clocked 48.87. In the 100 backstroke, another new event for Phelps, he lost to U.S. teammate Ryan Lochte, who held on in 54.15 seconds. Phelps touched second in 54.31.

Swimming this weekend at the Montreal stop of the Canada Cup, Phelps will again race the shorter events. Again, he'll risk the "loser" headlines. But at its core, that's what racing is about, isn't it? Fun. Challenge. Humility.

The Montreal event is the last meet in a series of three Canadian competitions held in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto. Along with Phelps, the meet will feature Canada's newly crowned world-record holder in the 200-metre short course breaststroke, Annamay Pierse of Edmonton.

Lafontaine wants to grow the series into a major swimming event that brings together world-class swimmers to Canada every year.

"The quality of our competitions has allowed us to attract a larger contingent of top international swimmers knowing they will have a great environment for fast, competitive swimming," Lafontaine said. "Having our swimmers race next to athletes such as Michael Phelps and Annamay Pierse will motivate them to go faster and spark the dream of our future generation of Olympic-level swimmers."

About 600 athletes will take part. And Phelps just wants to be among them. Of course, Swimming Canada is busy organizing media availability for the guy, but at the same time Lafontaine wants to create a low-key environment for Phelps, to support him as he spreads his wings.

"Let the kid be a swimmer first," Lafontaine said. "He's a superstar, but he wants to use the meet as a final preparation for his worlds trials. So we're going to be there, making sure he's a swimmer first and a superstar second, and that's what he wants."


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