LONG BEACH, Calif. - A whiff of the controversial air that hangs over the other U.S. Olympic trials being held in this state wafted down the Pacific Coast late Sunday night.
Unlike track and field in Sacramento, swimming isn't dealing with a doping scandal. Here in Southern California, it's an old-fashioned mix of envy, pride and confusion over Michael Phelps and what's best for the American team at the Athens Olympics.
Normally, the top sprinters at the U.S. trials make up the Olympic 400-meter relay, one of the sport's most electric events.
Phelps is not a normal talent, however, and there is every indication U.S. coach Eddie Reese will pass over some 100 freestylers who are near and dear and instead use the most versatile swimmer ever in an attempt to return the United States to the top in a relay it used to own.
That likelihood has been one of the nuances in Phelps' quest to match the seven gold medals won by Mark Spitz in 1972. The $1 million bonus for that feat, which he has been offered by Speedo, has made him perhaps the most hyped American swimmer ever, and some are itching in his shadow.
Jason Lezak and Gary Hall Jr. argue Phelps shouldn't be allowed to bump a teammate from the medal podium in Athens, Greece. Neil Walker, the man with the most to lose, gave Phelps a thumbs-up, and it's telling that Walker's coach at Longhorn Aquatics is Reese, who'll have the final say.
Asked about any animosity last night, Phelps said, "I don't know, I have a goal, and I'm shooting for that."
Anyone on the American roster can be used in a relay, and Bob Bowman, his coach at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, said Phelps' track record should make him a lock.
It's a foregone conclusion Bowman will be one of Reese's three assistants in Athens. The athletes just turned up the rhetoric on the topic, but U.S. coaches have been discussing it intimately for nearly a year, since the 2003 world championships.
Russia beat the Americans by 0.76 of a second in Barcelona, Spain. Later, head coach David Marsh said the result would have been closer if Phelps had been part of the foursome. That was at the start of the meet in which Phelps had an unprecedented five world records.
The 100 freestyle might be the eighth-best event on Phelps' resume, but he beat Lezak in his specialty at the Spring Nationals in February and again in Santa Clara, Calif., in May. Lezak, who set a U.S. record here and won the trials, is the only American in recent years to go faster than Phelps' best of 49.05.
Ian Crocker, heretofore known as Phelps' foil in the 100 butterfly, was second in 49.06 Sunday. Hall was third in 49.16. Walker followed in 49.38.
Hall said: "It's only fair for the individuals who earned a place on the relay to swim it in the Olympics." Lezak said Phelps should have to prove himself in a time trial, but Reese doesn't see it that way.
Reese said Lezak and Crocker, the men who qualified for the open 100 freestyle in Athens, will swim the Aug. 15 relay final and Phelps doesn't need a time trial to join them. The only way he could lose out is if something extraordinary occurs in the preliminaries, when the United States will rest its best.
"If everyone goes 48.2 or 48.3 in the morning, he might not be on it. ... The guys in the preliminary make the decision," Reese said.
Four years ago, Scott Tucker finished third in the trials 100, ahead of Lezak and Anthony Ervin, then Hall's training partner. Tucker didn't get in an epic relay final in Sydney, Australia. Ervin teamed with Walker, Lezak and Hall to no avail, as the Americans lost an Olympic 400 freestyle relay for the first time.
The defending champion Australians seem shocked it's even an issue. They say Phelps packs the same psychological pop on the blocks that Ian Thorpe does for the cause Down Under.
Aaron Peirsol, Phelps' obstacle in the 200 backstroke, didn't swim the 200 freestyle, but he'll be considered for the 800 relay for the same reasons Phelps is in the 400 freestyle relay mix: to make the Americans better in events they didn't win in 2000.
Crocker's runner-up finish in the 100 freestyle, incidentally, cleaned up another possibly sticky call for Reese.
He and Phelps are on schedule to dominate today's 100 butterfly. The Athens final in that event will be held Aug. 20, after the preliminaries of the medley relay. In the relay final, the butterfly leg will be swum by the fastest from the Athens 100 butterfly final. But now both can earn a presumptive gold medal in the prelims, Crocker on the freestyle leg and Phelps on the butterfly.
Beard reclaims record
Amanda Beard didn't waste any time reclaiming her world record in the 200 breaststroke, dominating a field that included four other Olympians.
She won by nearly five seconds at 2 minutes, 22.44 seconds, breaking the record that Australia's Leisel Jones had established Saturday at a meet in Australia. Jones' time of 2:22.96 edged the record Beard had shared with China's Hui Qi.
Caroline Bruce was the surprise runner-up, earning her first Olympic berth in 2:27.22.
Joyce upsets Coughlin
Kara Lynn Joyce surprised Natalie Coughlin in the 100 freestyle, and Jenny Thompson finished fifth.
Joyce won in 54.38, just four-hundredths of a second ahead of Coughlin. The top two qualified individually for Athens. Thompson (55.03) could still land a spot on the 400 freestyle relay team.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
(Trials results, 7e)