Mon, September 23, 2013

Phelps in pursuit of unrivalled greatness

By ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency


Michael Phelps of the U.S. smiles as he listens to reporter's questions during a news conference in the Olympic media centre before the start of the London 2012 Olympic games July 26, 2012. (REUTERS)


LONDON - Michael Phelps is trying to sound like an older, more mature, about-to-be-retired superstar Olympian.

He is talking about London 2012 not being about his seemingly relentless pursuit of unrivalled greatness in what will be the fourth Olympic pool he swims in, winning 14 golds and two bronze so far.

He is also dismissing talk of a rivalry with teammate and fellow 27-year-old Ryan Lochte and the threats posed to him in what Phelps acknowledges will be the final competitive meet of his career.

Until he loses a race here in East London, don’t believe a word of what he was saying Thursday in front of a jammed media conference at the Main Press Centre here in the heart of the Olympic Park.

You can debate all you want whether the American swimmer or Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt was the star of the show four years ago in Beijing, but Phelps went to China with huge expectations and did nothing but deliver. His eight gold medals in one Games was a record and in the following two years, there was much speculation as to whether it was the last we would see of him in an Olympic pool.

Sydney led to Athens, which led to Beijing, but does the Baltimore native really have it in him for one more splash?

We’re about to find out, as Phelps’ renewed commitment to training over the past several months has him fit and ready to put an exclamation mark on what may be the greatest career in Olympic history. It all starts with Saturday’s 400-metre individual medley, not always Phelps’ strongest event and one in which Lochte defeated him at the U.S. Trials last month.

And when it ends a week later, we’ll see how riveting the final chapter is compared to some of his earlier work.

“Going into Beijing, we were trying to conquer anything and everything,” a loose-sounding Phelps said while sitting alongside his long-time coach, Bob Bowman. “Here, this is the close. It’s, how many toppings do I put on my sundae?

“Not once in my career have I said anything about medal counts. The only person I can control is myself. I’m going to go into the water and be myself and see what happens.”

Whether the contriteness Phelps showed Thursday was genuine or not, there’s no diminishing his appeal, particularly in his homeland and especially with U.S. network NBC, the meal ticket for the Olympic movement that keeps on giving. NBC recoups some of the billions it hands over to the IOC in rights payments on the backs of athletes like Phelps. Ratings were through the roof in Beijing and at last month’s trials in Omaha, the network averaged more than five million viewers a night in prime time, unheard of numbers for this event.

If part of the world doesn’t want to make this the Michael Phelps Show, they are not shy about tarting up the showdown with Lochte. It’s a nice hedge on the Phelps storyline, especially if his rival gets the better of him Saturday night.

The challenges for Phelps are stacked high this time around. First there is Lochte, who will go head-to-head against him in two events. Then there is the gruelling 400m IM. And finally, the older he gets, the tougher it is to recover. So he talked Thursday about the need to pile on calories between events while getting rest and treatment and “on top of that, I have to maintain some emotional energy.” And here’s where we saw a glimpse of the human side of the Phelps’ machine.

As much as the competitor in him will be gunning to add to his legacy, he’s reached the stage in life where he will allow himself to soak up more than just the water in the Olympic pool.

“I’m sure there will be moments where I will be emotional,” Phelps said.

“These will be the last competitive moments I will have in my career.”

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

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