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Feel that sweet relief

By GARY SHELTON
Published August 15, 2004

ATHENS - Once the emotions were unleashed, the celebration was something to see.

This was the image of unbridled joy. There were smiles. There were embraces. There were fists thrust triumphantly into the air. There was glee slam-dancing with giddiness.

No, we are not talking about the reaction of Michael Phelps to winning his first gold medal.

We are talking about the reaction in the NBC corporate offices.

Michael Phelps has taken a step, and he did not fall. Whee! He has won one piece of gold, and there seems to be room left in his pocket. Yippee! He has survived the first question of the game show. Whoopee!

Also, whew!

If you think Phelps was happy to win his first gold medal Saturday, you can only imagine how they felt at the home of the pheasant.

NBC needs Phelps to make a run at taking over this Olympics. Let's face it. The Olympics need Phelps to make a run at taking over this Olympics. They need him to restore the charm, the challenge and, yes, the TV ratings that have suffered over the past few Olympiads.

Who else is going to put a face on these Games? There is no longer a compelling personality in track. Fans stopped dreaming about the American men's basketball team a long time ago. If there is a boxer with pizzazz, a gymnast with sparkle or a cyclist with charisma, they have yet to introduce themselves.

On the other hand, there is Phelps and his quest for gold.

"One down," he said. "Six to go."

Are you watching yet? Are you speaking his name? Are you debating whether Phelps, the 19-year-old whiz kid from Baltimore, can actually pull this off?

Maybe not. Truth be known, even Phelps' television hasn't been tuned in to the Olympics. He didn't watch the Opening Ceremonies on Friday night, preferring to stay in and watch the movie Miracle on TV. He fell asleep.

Over the next week, Phelps will be the miracle as far as NBC is concerned. Perhaps that's why you might have sworn you saw Jay Leno, Katie Couric, Matt LeBlanc and the entire cast of Scrubs running along the pool deck, urging him on. The longer seven golds is possible, the better for the network.

Truth be known, Phelps didn't need any help in claiming the 400-meter individual medley gold. As races go, that one's a layup for him. The IM is a blending of skills, and no one is as versatile as Phelps. That's the point of his quest, isn't it?

Little wonder, then, that Phelps won easily, beating teammate Erik Vendt by more than 31/2 seconds.

For the rest of us, it looked like one step of seven - or possibly eight, depending on how many relay teams Phelps is invited to join - in a journey. Given the size of Phelps' ambition, it was easy to forget that he is a 19-year-old kid who had just won a gold medal.

In the pool, however, Phelps tried to remind everyone. Normally hard to read, businesslike, this time Phelps was obviously overjoyed. He would not stop smiling.

"It's as happy as I've ever seen him," said coach Bob Bowman.

"It was one of the most emotional swims I've ever had," said Phelps, who had tears in his eyes during the medal ceremony. "This is something I have always dreamed of. I've thought about this every day for my whole swimming career."

Yes, Phelps wants a lot out of these Games, and yes, there is a lot of pressure on him to get it. But if he succeeds, it will be because he can focus so sharply on each race. Phelps isn't trying to create a banquet; he's simply cooking seven courses at once.

Still, this is a massive undertaking. Hercules had his 12 Labors. Phelps has his seven, maybe eight.

Already, people are talking around the pool. Already, the talk of a showdown has begun between Phelps and Australia's Ian Thorpe. When Thorpe was asked about his main challengers in the 200-meter freestyle, he mentioned two swimmers. He didn't bring up the name of Phelps except to say, again, that he doesn't think it's possible.

Then there are the relays, which seem to have bristled Phelps' teammate Gary Hall Jr. Already, the tiny controversies have begun. There have been reports that Phelps is definitely in, or that he is definitely out, or that no decision has definitely been made for today's 4x100 freestyle relay.

It bears repeating: This is not a decathlon, where athletes test versatility across a number of events. Phelps is taking on the best in the world in each event. It is a quest that has the ability to put the flavor in this Olympics. It is so audacious, so ambitious an undertaking that it's going to be fun to watch. Put it this way: If he gets close, how will you manage not to tune in?

Perhaps that explains why Phelps was so nervous before the race. He was tight, quiet. Bowman didn't say anything on the way to the pool, either; he has learned that when Phelps is quiet, he wants it to stay that way.

In the pool, however, Phelps made a little noise. He looked sharper, crisper than he did at the trials. His start was better. His turns were smoother.

"He's a better swimmer than he was," Bowman said. "He's physically better. Mentally, he knows what is expected of him."

That's not much. Gold medals. Great ratings. Groaning competitors.

By the time these Games are over, a lot of televisions might be tuned to the Olympics. Who knows? Maybe Phelps' set will be, too.

[Last modified August 15, 2004, 00:06:16]


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