Phelps began the meat of the Olympic year the way he ended 2003's championship season, with a world record. He had an empty tank when he capped last year by lowering his own standard in the 200-meter individual medley. Last night, he had plenty in reserve when he bettered his own mark in the 400 IM.
The presumptive Olympic star from the North Baltimore Aquatic Club came home in 4 minutes, 8.41 seconds. That eclipsed the 4:09.09 that Phelps posted in his 13th and final race at the 2003 world championships in Barcelona, Spain.
"I'm very happy with how I swam; it's always good to do a best time." said Phelps, who then dropped his nonchalant pose. "It's a relief, be cause the Olympic trials are more stressful than the games them selves."
The trials" schedule symbolized the sport's pecking order. The 400 IM was the first final contested, and it was fitting that Phelps" name was the first placed on the American roster that will swim in the Athens Olympics.
Phelps is on a mission: to swim more events and win more gold medals at the Olympics than anyone has before. For all that he had accomplished in the sport before his 19th birthday last week, Phelps had never won a race at the trials before yesterday.
He went to the 2000 Olympics as the trials runner-up in the 200-meter butterfly, but had to wait a night for his place on the squad to be acknowledged.
How hard is the challenge Phelps has set for himself at the trials?
Kevin Clements, Phelps' training partner at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, came to Long Beach with one of the top five seed times in the 400 IM, but he scratched to focus on a getting at least a relay berth in the 200-meter freestyle, the second part in Phelps" trials six-pack, which begins today and concludes tomorrow.
Pushed by Ryan Lochte in the morning's preliminaries, Phelps touched the final wall in 4:16.11 and shook his head at an NBC camera. In the evening's final, he traded trunks for jammers and played the same Eminen song on his Walkman that motivated him a year ago in Barcelona.
Phelps used a cautious start, but took command after a few strokes. He got ahead of his world-record pace on the backstroke, the second leg, and won by several body lengths.
Only one other man has ever gone under 4:11. Erik Vendt, who pushed Phelps to his first world record in the event two years ago, got the second Olympic berth, nearly six seconds behind Phelps.
"Two years ago, we were both under the world record." Vendt said. "I helped on that one. I didn't help on this one."
Phelps glided through the closing freestyle.
"I don't know if I was exactly coasting." Phelps said. "Maybe it looked effortless, but it didn't feel effortless.
It wasn't a perfect night for Phelps. Klete Keller won the 400 freestyle, improving Phelps" American record, but it was just a night's work for a kid from Rodgers Forge who seems to grow as a marketable commodity by the day.
On Saturday, Phelps figures to finally shake hands with Mark Spitz, as the man who set the bar with seven gold medals in the 1972 Olympics will give the award to the winner of the 200-meter butterfly.
Next Wednesday, he"ll pose with supermodel Cindy Crawford in a promotional appearance for one of their shared corporate sponsors.
How Michael Phelps performed yesterday at the U.S. Olympic trials:
400 Individual medley
Preliminaries: 4:16.11 (first place)
Final: 4:08.41 (first place and world record)
Phelps' event today
200 freestyle preliminaries and semifinals
Record (holder): 1:44.06 (Ian Thorpe)
400 IM final
1, Michael Phelps, North Baltimore, 4 minutes, 8.41 seconds, world record (previous Michael Phelps, 4:09.09 on July 27, 2003, Barcelona, Spain). 2, Erik Vendt, Trojan Swim Club, 4:14.09. 3, Eric Shanteau, Swim Atlanta, 4:15.08, 4, Ryan Lochte, Daytona Beach Swim, 4:18.46. 5, Eric Donnelly, Gator Swim Club, 4:21.91. 6, Tom Wilkens, Stanford Swimmin, 4:23.50. 7, Patrick Mellors, Jewish Community, 4:23.72. 8, Paul Fahey, Southern Cal, 4:29.18.
400 freestyle final
1, Klete Keller, Club Wolverine, 3:44.19A. 2, Larsen Jensen, Mission Viejo Na, 3:46.56. 3, Peter Vanderkaay, Michign, 3:50.15. 4, Justin Mortimer, Mission Viejo, 3:50.43. 5, Fran Crippen, Germantown Acade, 3:50.72. 6. Robert Margalis, Saint Petersburg, 3:52.47. 7, Chad Carvin, Mission Viejo, 3:52.50. 8, Tyler DeBerry, Arkansas, 3:59.94.
400 IM final
1, Katie Hoff, North Baltimore, 4:37.67. 2, Kaitlin Sandeno, Southern Cal, 4:40.39. 3, Kristen Caverly, Aquazot Swim Club, 4:42.57. 4. Adrienne Binder, Santa Barbara Swim, 4:45.61. 5, Bethany Pendleton, Wisconsin Aquati, 4:45.68. 6, Katie Yevak, Athens Bulldog, 4:47.36. 7, Julia Smit, Three Village Swim, 4:48.22. 8, Andrea Cassidy, Unattached, 4:49.09.