Cowley, M. (July 5, 2003). Thorpe's universe under threat. Sydney Morning Herald online,

[This excerpt is presented to demonstrate an admirable aspect of Coach Bob Bowman's character. He recognizes his limits and gives much credit to his athlete. The bolded and italicized paragraph is the item of interest here.]

Swimming's great debate may reach a climax at this month's world championships, writes Michael Cowley.

Michael Phelps is good. He's actually significantly better than just good, and may become the best swimmer on the planet. But right now - potential pushed to one side - Phelps is not quite in the "same universe" as Ian Thorpe.

The American 18-year-old is today what Thorpe was just a few years ago: a repetitive world record-breaker touted by many as the best they have seen.

Phelps's emergence has ignited much debate across the Pacific as to which swimmer can claim the mantle of the world's best. His teammate Lenny Krayzelburg has no doubt it belongs to the US teenager. Bob Bowman has different thoughts, and he's probably better placed than anyone to judge - he coaches the prodigy every day in Baltimore.

"I don't even think Michael thinks about it [the debate] too much," Bowman said. "Obviously people tell him about it, and he's flattered because right now Ian is the best swimmer in the world until someone else proves otherwise.

"It's certainly a compliment to be thought of in the same universe as Ian, but he's out there by himself on his performances.

"Michael is by far the best swimmer I've ever had. In terms of versatility, he is the best swimmer that I've seen. In terms of pure performance, I'm going to have to say Ian is the best swimmer I've seen so far, at least until Michael accomplishes some other goals.

"I think he handles the attention and the comparisons with a lot of perspective for someone who is 18 years old. Michael has achieved some things but nothing that will really make his career complete yet. Obviously for Michael's career to be validated there has to be Olympic gold medals, and hopefully these upcoming world championships will be a stepping stone to that goal."

And so the debate continues. It was fuelled further earlier in the week when Phelps lowered the world mark in the 200m individual medley, an event Thorpe recently chose as a diversion from freestyle. The possible clash of the pair in that event at the world titles in Barcelona later this month already has swim fans salivating.

Former Australian head coach Don Talbot weighed into the Thorpe-Phelps debate, admitting the American's 200IM was a great swim, but adding: "It's a bit of one-upmanship between the Americans and the Australians. We've got Ian Thorpe, and they're trying to say they've got someone even better. In the major international meets, Phelps has done nothing yet."

His comments found their way to Baltimore. Bowman said: "Michael's very focused in training, even more so after he read some of the press from Australia in recent days. Let's just say he has plenty of motivation to swim well at the next meet."

On times, Phelps's 1 minute 57.94 seconds puts him well ahead of Thorpe's best time of 2:00.11, but Bowman expects improvement from the Australian and is not ruling out a major one.

"It will be a good race." Bowman said. "I saw that Ian swam two minutes in the trials [in March], which is pretty good for his first shot at it.

"Can Ian get down to 1:57? Oh, I think Ian is capable of doing just about anything he sets his mind to. I have nothing but respect for Ian's ability to swim fast.

"Michael wants to do a best time in the IM. It will be tough on him. That night he's got to swim the 100m fly semi 30 minutes prior to the 200m IM final. It's not going to be easy but we'll see what he's made of I guess."

It didn't take Bowman long to realise what he had when an 11-year-old Phelps joined his swimming program in 1996.

Immediately the coach knew he had something special, mainly because the youngster had already broken national records but was still very raw in technique.

Obviously the technical coaching has worked. "I feel blessed every day," Bowman said. "I have such a talented athlete who can overcome my coaching and still do well. I just try to stay out of his way mainly.

"When he was a little younger he surprised me a little bit but not any more. Now he comes up with his own set of challenges and I try to go beyond that.

"He's a kid who really loves to work and he loves to challenge himself, and I think that's what comes through in his training. Everything he does he compares it to his past performance and tries to get as close to his best training effort that he can.

"That's how great athletes are motivated. They are not motivated by other people, they are motivated by themselves and that's where it has to come from because ultimately when you're at the top there's no one to catch."

Return to Table of Contents for this issue.