Q&A with Phelps biographer
To Kevin, et al.
Subject: From the man who knows best ...
One of the first folks I met from The Baltimore Sun was Paul McMullen. It was the Athens Olympics and McMullen was covering the most important story of those Games.
McMullen – P-Mac as I’ve taken to calling him, without his permission -- covered Phelps since the swimmer was 15 years old, from the 2000 Olympic trials in Indianapolis to the 2004 Games in Greece. Following the ’04 Olympics, McMullen took that expertise and penned what still stands as the definitive biography on Phelps, Amazing Pace.
1. Has anything surprised you this week? When you left Athens and thought ahead to Beijing, what did you anticipate might take place at the 2008 Games?
After last year’s world championships in Melbourne, it was apparent that Athens had just been a test run for Beijing. The only thing that has come as a shock is Jason Lezak’s anchor leg in the 400 freestyle relay. Gary Hall Jr. derided Jason for not being a clutch performer four years ago, a criticism that wasn’t unjustified. Lezak has forever transformed his image.
In Amazing Pace, I mention Michael modeling himself after the other Michael, Jordan. A la MJ, Michael elevated the performance of his teammates. Lezak is to Michael as Scottie Pippen was to Jordan.
2. Over the course of the past several days, what single thing has impressed you most?
Swimming lacks a meaningful stopwatch milestone, like Roger Bannister’s sub-4-minute mile in 1954. On the 60th anniversary of Bannister, in 2004, I speculated about Michael one day breaking 4 minutes in the 400 IM. If this year’s first gold was indeed his final 400 IM, we’ll never see that, but his times are astounding, considering that no one had broken 4:11 until he went there in 2002.
At the [North Baltimore Aquatic Club] Gala in May, I told Mark Schubert that [Phelps] would win the 100 freestyle in London in 2012. He nodded as if he had heard that a hundred times, I’m sure that’s been part of Bob Bowman’s master plan for a while. Michael’s leadoff leg in the 400 freestyle relay was a precursor to what we’ll see in London.
3. You were around Michael for so long; do you think he's able to reflect and appreciate what's taking place right now?
Gosh no. Why do you think he is capable of doing what he has? Introspection is not part of his gig. The young man lives in the moment – unless he’s reacting to some bulletin board material.
4. Whether it was from a meaningless meet or at the pool in Athens, is there a single definitive "Michael moment" that's etched in your brain, something that fully represents him to you?
At the 2000 U.S. trials in Indianapolis, a month after turning 15, he came from well off the pace to make history for the first time, earning a Sydney berth and becoming the youngest American male at the Games in any sport since 1952. His start was a joke, his turns were wretched, but even then, the kid could close a race. You knew you were blessed, to witness the start of something big. Did you see that his record 10th gold came in the 200 butterfly, the event that provided his international debut?
5. How difficult is it for folks who don't follow swimming except for one week every four years to appreciate just how incredible it is to win eight gold medals -- and set multiple world records? Does it compare to anything? And if he does win eight gold medals, where might it fall on the list of great athletic achievements?
Pools, suits and technique keep improving, so it’s an upset when a gold medal doesn’t require a world record. Times aren’t as impressive as the medal count. Remove the relays from the equation. If Michael runs the table, his individual gold total will match [Paavo] Nurmi, [Mark] Spitz, [Carl] Lewis, etc. Spitz and Phelps remain the only men who have ever won four individual events in a single Games, and now Michael can get five? Babe Ruth retired with 714 home runs, at a time when only one other man had 400. Now another Baltimorean is setting a mark that folks will be talking about a century from now.