It’s unclear what will be the strangest thing: Olympic star Michael Phelps standing on a pool deck in Annapolis this weekend with children as young as 9, preparing to compete at an annual local club event called the “Christmas Meet.”
Or the fact that Phelps will be taking each of his six races in the “boys open” division very seriously.
Phelps’s coach Bob Bowman cautioned that Phelps will not be trying to “set the world on fire,” but he and Phelps agree that, despite the recreation-center atmosphere and the short, 25-yard, non-professional venue for the North Baltimore Aquatic Club three-day holiday meet at the Naval Academy, Phelps will be as focused on his performance as he was for a pair of recent European World Cups.
Phelps, 24, said he needs different challenges to “spice it up” between Olympic and world championship quests. And races in pools in which Phelps has rarely competed since high school have taken on new significance since technical-suit wearing collegians shredded the short-course yards record books in 2008 and 2009.
Phelps holds only one American record — the 200 butterfly mark that he first claimed in 2003 — in short-course yards, the standard, 25-yard-pool distance for age-group and U.S. collegiate meets that is never contested internationally and is not recognized by the world swimming governing body (FINA).
Phelps lost two others in the record blitz that followed the 2008 arrival of super-high-tech suits, which are now banned at U.S. meets and will be banned internationally in January.
“I’ve got some races I’m going to take very seriously,” Phelps said recently. “There aren’t many times I get the opportunity to swim short-course [yards] ….. Essentially, when I swim, no matter where it is, I’m there to swim.”
Phelps, sitting on a bench poolside after a workout at Loyola College this fall, then proceeded to tick off the American record holders in various short-course yard events, noting that David Walters of the University of Texas went under Phelps’s old record in the 200 freestyle and Michigan’s Tyler Clary topped Phelps’s 400 medley mark; Stanford’s Austin Staab holds the 100 fly mark. All of those swimmers set their records in polyurethane bodysuits this past March.
Phelps and the U.S. swimming Olympic legends he surpassed between 2003 and ’06 — Tom Dolan, Matt Biondi and Melvin Stewart — are now buried under a host of moderately known collegians.
“I never had the 100 fly [record],” said Phelps, who turned professional when he was 16 and thus did not compete for the University of Michigan while attending school there. “The 200 fly is the only one I still have.”
Phelps might not be fit enough this weekend to take a serious swing at the records, but the Christmas Meet will allow him to gauge how close he is, while also providing an opportunity to hang out with youngsters at his longtime home club who idolize him.
“We are now about three months into a year-long plan designed to produce top performances in August,” Bowman said.
Phelps, who will don a waist-to-knee “jammer” this weekend, surprised journalists at the world championships this summer when he noted during a news conference that, “I have some things I’d like to do in short-course yards.” The remark plainly puzzled some in the audience: Why would a 14-time Olympic gold medalist have any interest in such events?
As a schoolboy, the 400-yard medley record was particularly close to Phelps’s heart — evidenced by the positively extraordinary fact that Phelps plans to swim the distance Saturday night, when he will also swim the 100 back. (He will the kick off the meet Friday with the 100 fly and 200 free; he is scheduled to conclude Sunday with the 100 freestyle and 200 fly).
Despite vowing to keep the 400 medley out of his Olympic repertoire for the time being because he’s tired of the grueling event, Phelps — who hasn’t swum it since the Olympics in Beijing — will give it a go this weekend. And he might bring it out again at the March 4-7 Maryland State Championships in Annapolis, another short-course yards meet he plans to swim, according to Bowman.
Phelps noted that swimming 400 yards is shorter than the Olympic-distance 400 meters, and the extra turns in short-course pools also reduce the workload. So the 400 medley this weekend won’t hurt as much as the one in the Olympics.
But it will still hurt.
Then again, so did losing the record that he worked so long and hard to wrench from Dolan, the Olympic swimming legend from Arlington and the Curl-Burke Swim Club. Phelps considered it one of his biggest achievements when he overtook Dolan in March 2006, competing at the American short-course championships in Austin.
But then Clary went under Phelps’s record by a half of a second when he won his first NCAA title last spring.
“I think he’d love to get that one back,” Bowman said. “That’s a great thing to keep him interested. It’s kind of his legacy. When Tom Dolan broke it in 1995, I remember thinking, ‘No one is ever going to go that fast.’ ….. I think that one means something to him because it’s Dolan’s record.”
Well, it’s not Dolan’s record anymore. Clary went under Dolan’s mark twice in one day and three times in a month earlier this year.
Long, technical suits were banned by the world swimming governing body, FINA, as of January 2010, and then USA Swimming and the NCAA followed by putting immediate bans into effect. At the international level, more than 200 world records have fallen in the two years since the highest-tech suits were released.
Bowman said Phelps grew up a student of the sport, so much faster than his peers that the only challenges he found often came from the record books. So he would diligently study the short-course yards records and rivals’ times from around the country in his monthly issue of Swimming World Magazine, then use big meets to try to go out and get them.
“When he was 9, 10, 11 ….. he knew all the times; he knew all of the records,” Bowman said. “Back then, he was just the same, just in a tiny body, but very competitive. He knew what he wanted to do.
“He would sit on a chair on the pool deck, and memorize the times. ….. It was pretty remarkable to see an 11- or 12-year-old doing that.”
Apparently, Phelps has not lost interest in those old, U.S. schoolboy records.
“He might have some unfinished business,” Bowman said this summer, “in short-course yards.”