Phelps' final swim in Indy rekindles fond memories
When Michael Phelps first came to Indianapolis in 2000, he was an ambitious kid with wide eyes, unlimited potential and an unrecognizable name.
He left the IUPUI Natatorium that week as America's youngest male Olympic swimmer in nearly seven decades.
In the dozen years since his name was painted on the venue's wall alongside the other Olympic qualifiers, Phelps has won medals all around the globe, broken dozens of records and can swim anywhere he wants. Yet he always seems to make time for one place on his schedule -- Indianapolis.
''Indy is where it all started for me as a scrawny, 15-year-old kid that nobody ever thought had a shot,'' he said with that playfully boyish smile that has earned him millions in endorsements.
After an 18-year run as one of the family's choice destinations, there's no telling when Phelps and his entourage may return.
His last scheduled event at the three-day Indianapolis Grand Prix is Saturday's 200 IM, and if the 26-year-old retires after the London Olympics as he has promised, it would be his last competitive swim in Indy.
Reality is hitting the family hard.
''When I got off the plane last night (Thursday), I gave my granddaughter a digital camera and she took hundreds of pictures,'' Phelps' mother, Debbie, said Friday as she watched Phelps compete in what may be the final 400 IM of his career. ''Then I looked at the wall in the airport and that's when the tears started rolling.''
She was still misty-eyed Friday when asked to recount her favorite memories in town -- and they didn't just include her son.
Long before Michael Phelps became an international star, his sister, Whitney, was making waves.
At the 1994 U.S. championships, the 14-year-old Phelps burst onto the national stage by winning the women's 200 butterfly in 2 minutes, 11.04 seconds -- third fastest in the world that year and good enough to put her on America's world championship team.
Two years later, Whitney Phelps was back for what she dreamed would be an Olympic Trials triumph. Instead, she failed to qualify.
When the family returned to Indy for the 2000 Olympic Trials, it was her younger brother who wound up on center stage. Veterans such as Dara Torres and Amanda Beard said they don't remember much about Phelps' 2000 trials performance until he stunned everyone by qualifying for the Olympics in the 200 fly. To this day, Phelps still looks up at the name on the wall as one of his greatest achievements.
''What I remember was how excited he was to be in this pool because he had never swum here,'' coach Bob Bowman said. ''I have this framed picture on my desk of he and I after he made the team, and someone asked me one time where it was taken and I was standing right next to it. So I said, `It was right here.' The first time we were here, he was really small. If you look at him now versus what he looked like then, he looks like a baby.''
Phelps exudes many of the same traits he did then. He never lacked confidence, still revels in the attention and always greets fans with that smile.
But in so many other ways, he grew up around the Indy pools.
The long, lanky teenager from Baltimore has chiseled his body into a mass of muscle. After finishing fifth in Sydney, Phelps went on to win 14 gold medals over the next two Olympics and became the most decorated Olympian in American history. And the shy kid that Beard remembers as ''the cutest thing'' in 2000 has emerged as an engaging public speaker.
On Wednesday, Phelps took a short break from training to give something back to the community that has embraced him like a favorite son.
His message to about 100 children and workers at an Indianapolis Boys and Girls Club was simple: Ignore the detractors, like the middle-school teacher who once told Phelps that he would never be successful, establish goals and believe that anything is possible.
Few swimmers have achieved more in Indy than Phelps.
He won four titles at the 2003 U.S. Spring Nationals, setting one world record and one American record. He closed out that week by leading the U.S. past Australia in the first Duel in the Pool, setting another world record and just missing two others.
In 2004, he overcame a suspected case of food poisoning to win five events in a tuneup for the Athens Olympics, then returned after the Summer Games for the world championships. He won one title before withdrawing because of a back injury.
Phelps won six more events at Indy's Counsilman Classic in 2005 and five more U.S. national titles in Indy in 2006, and the list goes on.
If Phelps can beat rival Ryan Lochte in Saturday's 200 IM, he will have yet another passage to add to his journal of favorite swimming memories.
But there's one image that will never go away.
''I remember when his name was painted on that wall and the little guy on that that motorized stand went up and painted it,'' Debbie Phelps said. ''I'll never forget it.'