Phelps tests mettle first in 400 medley

He's big favorite for gold in initial event

berth in relay sparks controversy

Athens Olympics

August 14, 2004|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

ATHENS - Get some gold and a week's worth of momentum.

That's today's agenda for Michael Phelps, who has one of the most distinctive resumes in the history of swimming, but zero Olympic medals. He figures to rectify that with a victory in the 400-meter individual medley, the launching pad for an effort that could bring as many as eight medals.

Phelps definitely will have a shot at seven, the reason Speedo has dangled a $1 million bonus in front of him should all turn out to be gold, the benchmark set by Mark Spitz in 1972.

Today's women's 400 IM includes another member of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, 15-year-old Katie Hoff. The test of all four strokes is swimming's version of the decathlon, and Phelps' track record there stamps him as the most versatile swimmer of his era.

As much as he is expected to rule the 400 IM, Phelps' participation in an unprecedented eighth event is slightly problematic. The 19-year-old has made great gains in the freestyle. He's 2-0 this year against U.S. trials champion Jason Lezak, but couldn't cram the 100 freestyle into his crowded trials program in Long Beach, Calif.

At 3:40 a.m. Baltimore time tomorrow, he has a preliminary in the 200 freestyle, the glamour event of the swimming competition. Phelps will be back at the athletes' village or en route there about 90 minutes later, when four teammates swim the preliminary of the 400 freestyle relay.

If two of them turn in splits in the low 48-second range, Phelps will have a relatively quiet Sunday night. A more likely scenario has him joining Lezak and Ian Crocker in the relay final, but isn't Phelps taking a calculated gamble?

"I don't know," said Bob Bowman, Phelps' personal coach, who is one of the American assistants. "Hopefully, he's done enough good frees over the year to give Eddie a good feel for what he can do."

That would be Eddie Reese, the U.S. head coach, who hasn't changed his position since July 12, when he stated the men who finished third through sixth at the trials would swim the preliminary of the relay here and would have to swim very fast to keep Phelps out of the final.

Yesterday, the most accomplished of the four voiced his anger over the situation.

"No one qualified for the Olympic team in February except Phelps," Gary Hall Jr. said, a reference to the 49.05 Phelps posted in winning the Spring Nationals. "There were no exceptions for anyone else."

Actually, Natalie Coughlin is expected to help the women's 800 relay, even though she didn't swim the 200 freestyle at the U.S. trials.

Hall continued: "I think it's unfair to put the pressure of Michael Phelps' seven-gold-medal hunt on the shoulders of the coach. There's so much pressure on him from USA Swimming and the media."

Asked about Hall's comments, Reese said: "The most pressure on me is finding a relay that can beat the South Africans and the Russians and the Australians and the French. It has nothing to do with a [Phelps] gold medal. We're in a relay hunt, and we might not get that sucker."

The U.S. trials were a physical stress. The relay issue increases the mental anxiety Phelps faces, one reason he needs the 400 IM to go well today.

"It's important to get off to a good start," Bowman said. "From an emotional standpoint, it will take a lot less energy to get over a great swim than it would a disappointing one."

Four years ago in Sydney, local hero Ian Thorpe, the favorite in the 200 freestyle, won two golds on swimming's opening night, which led to an emotional hangover in Australia.

Phelps was then a naive 15-year-old whose warm-up for the 200 butterfly final was trimmed because he misplaced his credential. He got on the blocks with his drawstring untied.

"That was his first international meet, and it was rather overwhelming," Bowman said. "Now, he knows how everything works. He knows what the Olympic Village is like. He knows what the buses are like."

Phelps concluded last summer's world championships with a weary world record in the 400 IM, his 13th race in six days. Here, it's his first event, and his margin of error increased when silver-medal favorite Laszlo Cseh of Hungary broke his foot last month.

U.S. teammate Erik Vendt and Italian Alessio Boggiatto are also factors in the event, which was to start early this morning, but none is expected to catch Phelps, who had a six-second edge on Vendt at the trials.

"When Vendt and I first got to the village, we started talking about the Sydney race," Phelps said of a 1-2 finish by Tom Dolan and Vendt that got the Americans going. "We talked about maybe doing something like that."

The IOC's entry list for swimming covers 32 events. It's done according to the Olympic schedule and qualifying times. The men's 400 IM is the first final, so Phelps was the first name listed in the 40-page release.

He has been on top of the swim world for over a year. Why should things change now?

Tracking Phelps

Today

400 individual medley: Prelim and final

Tomorrow

200 freestyle: Prelim and semifinal

400 freestyle relay: Final

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

8 days, 8 events, 8 chances for Phelps

Michael Phelps' swimming schedule in Athens:

TODAY AUG. 14

400 IM 3:22 a.m. : Prelim

12:30 p.m. Final

TOMORROW AUG 15

200 freestyle

3:40 a.m.: Prelim

12:40 p.m.: Semifinal

400 freestyle relay

1:55 p.m.: Final

MONDAY AUG. 16

200 butterfly

3:38 a.m.: Prelim

1:31 p.m.: Semifinal

200 freestyle

12:43 p.m.: Final

TUESDAY AUG. 17

200 butterfly

12:48 p.m.: Final

800 freestyle relay

1:46 p.m.: Final

WEDNESDAY AUG. 18

200 IM

4:47 a.m.: Prelim

1:35 p.m.: Semifinal

THURSDAY AUG. 19

100 butterfly

4:10 a.m.: Prelim

1:35 p.m.: Semifinal

200 IM

1:14 p.m.: Final

FRIDAY AUG. 20

400 medley relay

5:28 a.m.: Prelim

100 butterfly

12:37 p.m.: Final

SATURDAY AUG. 21

400 medley relay

1:25 p.m.: Final

All times Eastern. NBC will televise swimming by tape delay each night from 8 p.m. to midnight, except Sundays, when coverage starts at 7 p.m.

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