Olympics-Swimming-Single-minded Phelps redefines his sport
BEIJING Aug 17 (Reuters) - Michael Phelps grew up face down in a swimming pool.
For day after day, year after year he practised in his club pool, building his strength, perfecting his technique and feeding his ambition to redefine the boundaries of his sport.
On Sunday all the hard work paid off when he won his eighth gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, beating Mark Spitz's 36-year record of seven golds for a single Games and earning himself a place in the pantheon of all-time sporting greats.
"He may be human, but he's from a different planet," Russian swimmer Alexander Sukhorukov said this week after the 23-year-old Phelps had moved one step closer to the landmark.
"A different galaxy," he added.
Phelps's coach Bob Bowman spotted his potential when he was an 11-year-old, telling his parents he had a golden future so long as he dedicated himself utterly to swimming.
Phelps bought into the dream and sacrificed any pretence of a normal life in his pursuit of glory.
Tobogganing or going bowling with friends was ruled out in case he injured himself, late night partying was a no-no and girlfriends were pushed to one side to make room for practice.
But Phelps has no regrets and instead revels in his exploits that have not only turned him into a millionaire but have also raised the profile of a sport that trails badly in the popularity stakes back home behind the likes of baseball and basketball.
"I am lucky to have the talent I have, the drive I have and that I'm excited about the sport. I am fortunate for every quality that I have, and I wouldn't trade any of it in," he said on Sunday after re-writing the history books.
Famed for his fierce focus and ferocious competitive spirit, Phelps is an obsessive who sets himself near impossible targets and then seems to exceed them.
Anyone who knew Phelps when he was a child in his hometown of Baltimore, must be shaking their heads in disbelief.
At his first swimming lesson he had a screaming fit, terrified of putting his face in the water, at school he had to take medicine to overcome an attention deficit disorder and at home he struggled to come to terms with his parents' divorce.
Swimming came to the rescue, giving a structure to his day and allowing him to thrive in at least one area of his life.
Bowman became his coach when he was 11 and has charted the swimmer's rise to the top, assuming the role of father figure along the way, teaching him how to drive and showing him how to knot his tie for his first school dance.
"I've been able to accomplish my lifetime dreams and goals. I always wanted to be an Olympic gold medallist, a professional athlete, a world-record holder and Bob has taken me to all of those," a grateful Phelps said.
The achievements soon stacked up.
At 15 he became the youngest person to hold a world record and also the youngest male in 68 years to be selected for the U.S. Olympic swimming team -- coming fifth in a race in Sydney.
He has now chalked up 25 individual world records against 26 for Spitz and has 14 career Olympic golds, five more than anyone else.
Extraordinary in the water, Phelps has an ordinary, boy-next-door persona outside the pool.
He does nothing to hide his affection for his mother, Debbie, who follows him to all his meets. He loves hip-hop music, video games and watches DVDs endlessly while relaxing between races.
He has a gigantic appetite, eating industrial quantities of food to fuel his exertions, and relishes the company of friends, seeking camaraderie after the loneliness of the lanes.
He has been romantically attached to a few women but has never had a succession of glamorous girlfriends, like many sporting figures, and if he is seeing someone now he is keeping very quiet about it.
He takes his position as a role model extremely seriously and has slipped up only once, getting arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol a few months after the Athens Games for which he apologised profusely.
At 23 he is probably near the peak of is physical powers and is certainly a much more muscular, imposing figure than back in 2004. Nobody has suggested he is considering retiring after Beijing and it would be hard to imagine him leaving the pool.
Perhaps his biggest problem will be finding a serious rival to stir his competitive drive and push him to new heights. (Additional reporting by Derek Parr and Steve Keating; Editing by Greg Stutchbury)
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