Watching the unbreakable mark fall in Beijing

Vladimir Bure, a former Spitz foe, admires Phelps' historic feat at '08 Games

Wednesday, 08.20.2008 / 11:00 AM ET / Features
By Eric Marin
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Watching the unbreakable mark fall in Beijing
Vladimir Bure
newjerseydevils.com – Vladimir Bure knows a thing or two about living the Olympic dream.

Entering his 10th season as the Devils' fitness consultant, Bure is a former member of the Soviet swim team and a four-time Olympic medalist. When Michael Phelps secured his Olympic-record eighth gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Games on Sunday, Bure shared what was a common reaction around the globe.

"I couldn't believe it," Bure told newjerseydevils.com. "I couldn't believe that someone had beaten Mark Spitz's record. Phelps is a phenomenal athlete. No one in the world believed that this record would be beaten."

Bure had a better view than most for Spitz's swim into history. He competed against the nine-time gold medalist in both the 1968 Mexico City Games and the 1972 Munich Games. A native of Norilsk, USSR, Bure was just 17 when he captured his first Olympic medal, a bronze, in the 4x200m freestyle in Mexico. He added a silver and two bronze medals as a 21-year-old in Munich, with Spitz capturing the gold each time.

Spitz had famously predicted he would win six golds in Mexico, but fell short of his goal with two golds in relay events, along with silver in the 100m butterfly and bronze in the 100m freestyle. He would be all but unstoppable in 1972, setting five world records en route to becoming the then-most highly-decorated gold medalist in a single Olympic competition.

But Bure knew he wasn't racing Spitz in Munich to beat him; he was just trying to keep up.

"When I got my bronze medal in the 100-meter freestyle, our lanes were nearby, and when we swam I could see Spitz underwater," Bure recalled. "As we got to the end of the race, I looked ahead and saw the wall was right in front of me. Then I looked over and saw that Spitz was still next to me. I was so close... I couldn't believe it. I almost jumped through the roof with my finish. I have never forgotten that I was so close to a swimmer like Mark Spitz."

Bure finished the race in 51.77 seconds, just 0.55 seconds behind Spitz, who posted a world-record time of 51.22. The silver went to Jerry Heidenreich of the U.S., with a time of 51.65. Although Bure's Olympic career included a second-place showing in the 4x100m freestyle, he points to that half-second margin between himself and Spitz as the high point of his illustrious career.

"At that time, American swimmers were much better than Soviet swimmers, and Spitz was much better than I was. But that race was exciting... a dream come true," said Bure, a 17-time Soviet champion who first joined the National Team as a 15-year-old. "I was treated like a champion in Russia, because winning a medal in the 100-meter freestyle... that was a race that determined the fastest swimmer in the world."

Thirty-six years later, Phelps has done what so many, like Bure, thought unthinkable. To win Olympic gold is an accomplishment in itself. But to win eight races in a week?

I have never forgotten that I was so close to a swimmer like Mark Spitz. - Vladimir Bure
"One race is very difficult," Bure said. "Swimming several events, when each event has a semifinal and a final... You need lots of energy and concentration, because after you finish one event, you need to be able to get out and compete again and again. I still don't know how Phelps did it."

It has been said that luck is the product of opportunity and preparation.

Bure would agree.

He believes luck was a factor for Phelps, but not in the sense of blind fortune: Phelps certainly owes his dominance to more than the odds of a roulette spin. But three of Phelps' Beijing golds came in relay events, requiring that he handle his leg of the race and rely on each of his three teammates to handle their own.

Bure mentioned Jason Lezak, the American 100m specialist who came from behind in the final leg of the 4x100m freestyle relay to edge Alain Bernard of France by eight one-hundredths of a second and keep Phelps' quest alive. Lezak swam his leg of the relay in 46.06, the fastest ever recorded.

Three days later in the individual 100m freestyle final, Lezak posted a time of 47.67 to finish nearly a half-second behind Bernard and tie for bronze.

"No one thought it could be broken because you needed someone to compete in a few different strokes and win some relays," said Bure. "Winning a relay race requires some luck, but luck works on the side of the strongest person. To be lucky, you have to be stronger. Lezak didn't repeat his performance in the 100-meter final, but in the relays he performed well enough to win."

As for the other half of luck's formula, Bure said the preparation of today's top athletes has changed greatly since his days as an Olympic competitor. The modern regimen focuses on quality over the quantity that was a hallmark of Bure's own workout programs from years past.

Bure with his trusty stopwatch during a conditioning session.
In his current work with the Devils, Bure explained that he emphasizes proper technique over endless repetition. That's a departure from Bure's aquatic training with the Soviet team, which entailed 15 grueling miles a day split up into three, high-intensity sessions lasting two hours.

"To drive it in a car would've been long – we were swimming it," he said. "It was extremely tough and extremely painful but you kept going and learned to swim through the pain. You knew you were done when you couldn't move anymore... Swimmers today still work hard, but they work smarter."

Phelps' smile has been one of the defining images of the Beijing Games. It is estimated that Phelps-mania has only just begun, with countless high-profile endorsement deals sure to follow once the Beijing Games conclude on Aug. 24. Just 23 years old, he is expected to compete and add to his legacy when the Olympics arrive in London for the 2012 Games.

Bure doesn't dispute that Phelps has earned the hype. He hesitated, however, to bestow the tag of "the greatest Olympian ever" on Phelps, or on any one athlete. Though awed by Phelps' achievement, Bure, whose sons Pavel and Valeri enjoyed successful NHL careers and Olympic appearances, said the Olympics are loaded with competitors that have reached unimaginable new highs.

A day before Phelps had taken the podium for his eighth gold, Usain Bolt of Jamaica earned the title of "the world's fastest man" by sprinting his way to a world-record time of 9.69 seconds in the Men's 100m dash. Sure enough, another one of Beijing's best had amazed the world.

"I was shocked when I watched it," Bure said. "To see [Bolt] set a new world record and make it look easy; like he had stopped running for the last 20 meters. Athletes can become heroes in their sport, and to win even one gold medal, you have to be something special."

Bure's own Olympic career continued after Munich, though he failed to medal at the 1976 Montreal Games. By the time he left competitive swimming in 1979, he had collected three silvers at the 1973 and 1975 World Championships, and silver and bronze at the 1977 European Championships. He has no regrets about his Olympic performances, close as he was to Spitz in that 100m freestyle in Munich.

"Being an Olympic athlete was the best time of my life," he said. "You work hard at it, and you get results. Now I work with a stopwatch, and my results come from the guys I train. When you talk about the Olympic games, you see that I got silver and bronze. But I like looking forward to what comes next, and not at what was."