American swimmer Michael Phelps is seeking to navigate uncharted
territory. For his second straight Olympics, the 23-year-old Phelps is
aiming to win eight gold medals to surpass the record seven that
fellow-American swimmer Mark Spitz won in 1972. As VOA's Jim Stevenson
reports, Phelps is well on his way to completing his lofty ambition.
Many say Michael Phelps' quest is a mission impossible. But no other swimmer is coming into the Beijing Olympics with the conditioning and records that Phelps possesses.
Phelps secured his eight-race Olympic schedule by winning the 100-meter butterfly at the U.S. swimming trials last Saturday in Omaha, Nebraska. To surpass Mark Spitz, Phelps says he has to overcome just one competitor in Beijing - himself.
"You never know what can happen," said Phelps. "The only person I can worry about is myself. And, if I can prepare myself the best way that I can, then that is really all I can ask. If I go in there and I do a best time and I still get beat, that is all I can ask for. So, I am trying to prepare myself the best way I can. And just go out there and swim fast."
When he was 15, Phelps got his first taste of international competition at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where he became the youngest U.S. male Olympian swimmer since 1932.
In 2001, Michael Phelps began his assault on the record books, becoming the youngest swimmer to break a world record in winning the 200-meter butterfly in 1:54.92 minutes at the national championships. Four months later in Japan, he lowered the mark at the World Championships by 34-100ths of one second (1:54.58). Phelps was named the 2001 USA Swimmer of the Year.
The two-time Olympian became the first athlete ever to win eight medals total at a non-boycotted Olympic Games, collecting six gold and two silvers in 2004 in Athens. Phelps set four individual world records and won seven gold medals at the 2007 World Championships to become the winningest athlete in World Championship history.
Phelps says his success and experience has prepared him well for Beijing.
"Right now, I am more relaxed than I was in 2004 going into the Olympics," he said. "After going through everything I had been through in the last four years, it helped me prepare a little bit better for these games coming up and really understand what is going to happen. Before Athens, I was (like a) deer in the headlights, and did not really know what to expect."
Phelps has set his best times in all of his events since March 2007. At the recent U.S. swimming trials, he lowered the world record in the 400-meter individual medley (to 4:05.25 minutes). His fans expect to see more records, and Michael Phelps has no doubt that he can improve on all of his results.
"I do not think anything is too high. The only way for you to limit yourself is if you put a limit on yourself. The sky is the limit," Phelps said. " And the more you use your imagination, the farther you will go. I think anything is possible. I set very high goals for myself. And I work as hard as I can to get there."
The talented Phelps began swimming at the age of seven. Four years later, he started training under his current coach Bob Bowman at his Baltimore, Maryland, swim club. Bowman has watched and guided Phelps' steady improvement over the years. He says the past four years have been especially impressive.
"Probably the two areas where Michael has improved the most are, number one, his physical strength," Bowman said. "And that is a result of a much more intense strength-training program since Athens. And the other area where he really has improved the most is his breaststroke. It has gone from being a stroke that was quite weak in Athens to being a strength of his."
Michael Phelps will be one of the busiest athletes in Beijing, as he is scheduled to swim five individual events and possibly three relays in nine days. Including heats, semifinals and finals, he could swim as many as 20 races. At the end, Phelps could be standing as the most decorated athlete in Olympic history.