Michael Phelps is already the world’s greatest swimmer. Now, he’s just about a year away from the 2008 Olympic Games and a chance to become one of the greatest athletes who ever lived.
“I have a goal sheet next to my bed,” Phelps, who won six gold medals and eight medals overall in Athens, told TODAY co-host Matt Lauer during an interview Wednesday. “My coach has the same goal sheet. We’re the only two who know those goals.”
The game plan may be secret, but Phelps hinted at what it may be at the recent world swimming championships, where he broke five world records and won seven gold medals, one more than he collected three years ago in the Athens Olympics.
Seven swimming golds are an iconic number. In Munich 35 years ago, Mark Spitz won that many, a record that stands to this day.
If Phelps were to match or beat that number and run his total medal count into double digits, he would be more than the greatest swimmer ever; he would join the likes of Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods and Roger Federer as one of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen.
Phelps was speaking from Tiananmen Square in Beijing, where China was putting on a spectacular show marking exactly one year before the Aug. 8, 2008, opening of the Beijing Summer Games.
NBC Sports will broadcast the games, and TODAY has been marking the countdown to the games with reports from Beijing and special events on the Plaza at Rockefeller Center.
Among those appearing were Paul Hamm, who in 2004 became the first American male ever to win the gymnastics all-around gold. Like Phelps, Hamm is coming back to try to repeat his feat.
Hamm is coming out of a retirement he took to finish his degree at Ohio State University. Phelps, who was just 19 when he competed in Athens, has just continued to get better with each passing year.
He’s 22 now and living in Ann Arbor, Mich., where he is attending the University of Michigan, helping to coach the swim team there, and training for his assault on immortality.
For Phelps, the countdown clock to the 2008 games celebration in Tiananmen Square was an exciting reminder of what lies ahead.
“This is the most important year in my career,” he told Lauer. “It’s cool to be here live and be able to see it and say to yourself, ‘You have a year to get ready,’”
He confirmed that he will probably swim in the same eight events he attacked in Athens, and is encouraged by his dominance at the world championships.
In addition to the seven gold medals he won in 1972, Spitz also won two gold medals and three overall in the 1968 Mexico City Games. His nine golds are tied for the most top medals in Olympic history, while his 11 overall are tied for eighth place.
With just three gold medals in Beijing, Phelps will have 10, more than anyone in the 110-year-history of the modern games. If he matches his six of 2004, he’ll be far and away the most prolific champion in the history of the games.
He’d also be closing in on the overall total of 18 medals won by Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina, over three Olympiads from 1956-64.
“I’m not too old, yet,” Phelps told Lauer. “I can still handle that number of events. I know what I have to do to be able to compete at my best.”
In Athens, he was a kid still living at home who was thrust into the glare of the international spotlight on the biggest stage in sports. After he came home, he suffered the embarrassment of an arrest for underage DWI. But he’s matured since then, he says, and now has the advantage of knowing what awaits him.
“I’m not a deer in the headlights right now,” he said. “I know what to expect; hopefully I’ll handle it a little better and hopefully perform a little bit better.”