BARCELONA, Spain — Finally, Ian Thorpe of Australia has some company at the top of the marquee for the first time in years at an international swim meet.
Three world records have a way of creating extra space, propelling 18-year-old Michael Phelps of Baltimore into rarefied air here at the World Swimming Championships.
This won't be just about Thorpe versus Phelps. After all, how can it be when they will have only one confrontation in an individual race, the 200-meter individual medley on Friday?
The swimming portion, lasting eight days, of the championships starts today with finals in the men's and women's 400 freestyle and in the men's and women's 400 freestyle relays at the Palau Sant Jordi pool, which is almost like a class reunion for Barcelona, which played host to the acclaimed 1992 Summer Olympics.
Tonight, Thorpe, 20, will be aiming to become the first swimmer at the World Championships to have won three consecutive titles in one event. He holds the world record in the 400 meters and could be pushed by countryman Grant Hackett.
Phelps will be in four individual races and two relays. His latest world record came June 29 in the 200 IM in Santa Clara, Calif., an early birthday present as he turned 18 on June 30. He managed the accomplishment on a windy day in an outdoor pool, going 1 minute 57.94 seconds, breaking the oldest world record in men's swimming.
The old record, of 1:58.16, had been set by Jani Sievinen of Finland in 1994. Phelps' record was also impressive because he was in heavy training, and his teammates joked that he didn't realize he wasn't supposed to push that hard at midseason.
Phelps was low-key when asked last week about any potential rivalry between him and Thorpe, noting the disparity in Olympic gold medals: three to Phelps' zero.
Thorpe, who holds three world records himself, comes to Barcelona with more question marks than usual. He has a new coach, Tracy Menzies, who will be making her international debut here. Thorpe also suffered from a viral illness, keeping him out of the Duel in the Pool, the dual meet between the United States and Australia at Indianapolis in April.
The star on the women's side could quite easily be Natalie Coughlin of Cal, the world record holder in the 100 backstroke. The versatile 20-year-old has been drawing comparisons to Tracy Caulkins.
Another intriguing storyline involves Jenny Thompson, who finished her second year of medical school. Thompson has come out of retirement and is using the Worlds as a test to see whether she wants to push forward for the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
Another all-American rivalry won't be adding another chapter at Barcelona.
What would have been a marquee race in the 200 backstroke between 2000 Olympic gold medalist Lenny Krayzelburg and Aaron Peirsol, the world record holder at that distance, won't be happening because Krayzelburg is not at the Worlds after a shoulder injury.