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SWIMMING

Phelps May Get the Last Laugh

August 13, 2004|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — It's almost a rite of passage into the Olympic pool. U.S. Olympic swimming team rookies are required to stretch their comic abilities, performing skits in front of one tough room, seasoned critics with inside knowledge and high standards.

The men and women were up to the task in Mallorca, Spain, even picking up the comedic level at a pre-Olympic training camp, said veteran Klete Keller.

One theme emerged in mocking swimmers on previous Olympic teams -- making fun of Michael.

Michael, as in Michael Phelps.

"There were a couple of those," Keller reported. "Every group did one. They were all pretty good in their own way. Everyone was laughing, including Michael.

"Usually they're not that great. Some of them even used a laptop with a projector. They're getting real high-tech."

There Phelps goes again, raising the level of excellence, in and out of the pool. Just like the greats in other sports -- Jordan, Gretzky et al., making their teammates better. By his mere presence, he pushed teammates Ian Crocker and Aaron Peirsol to world records in their events at the Olympic trials in Long Beach last month.

How much better will they all be in Athens?

Then there is the question: Will Phelps have a shot at matching Mark Spitz's record seven gold medals of 1972, or Matt Biondi's five gold of 1988?

Answers to those questions will start coming Saturday at the Olympic Aquatic Center on the first of eight days of swimming competition. Phelps has only one event, the 400-meter individual medley, on one of his rare light days.

Phelps' primary competitor in the 400 IM was expected to have been 18-year-old Laszlo Cseh of Hungary, who had the second-fastest qualifying time. But Cseh broke a bone in his foot last month, needed surgery, and told a Hungarian journalist here this week that he continued to feel pain. Erik Vendt, of USC's Trojan Swim Club, won a silver medal in this event four years ago.

The first two finals Saturday night will be the 400 IM and the 400 freestyle, setting the stage for the rest of the meet. It seems somehow fitting that Phelps, the pre-Olympic face of 2004, and Ian Thorpe of Australia, who served in that role in 2000, will be on display.

Saturday, though, may be only an appetizer for Monday's marquee race, the showdown in the 200 freestyle among Thorpe, the world-record holder; Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands, the defending Olympic champion, and Phelps.

Thorpe, who won three gold medals and two silvers in 2000 at Sydney, will be defending his Olympic title in the 400 freestyle Saturday against the likes of countryman Grant Hackett and America's Keller.

The other individual final Saturday is the women's 400 individual medley. Defending Olympic champion Yana Klochkova of Ukraine posted the fastest qualifying time.

Her chief competition could come from the youngest member of the U.S. team, rapidly improving 15-year-old Katie Hoff, who trains at a satellite location of Phelps' swim team, North Baltimore Aquatic Club. In February, Hoff went 4:42.32 in the 400 IM at nationals, and her winning time at trials was 4:37.67. The other American in the race is Kaitlin Sandeno, formerly of USC, who placed fourth in the 400 IM at Sydney.

There were six world records set at the U.S. trials, five by the men and one by the women. The U.S. men's team is so strong -- considered the best since 1976 -- that there have been questions as to whether the women have been eclipsed.

"I don't feel like we're in the shadow of the men's team," said three-time Olympian Amanda Beard, who set the world record in the 200 breaststroke. "More like underdogs."

The Australian and American teams held news conferences on consecutive days this week, the Aussies going first, on Tuesday. Thorpe struck his usual theme, saying, "It's not about medals. It's about performance."

And questions about Phelps' quest popped up everywhere here, the same way they have since his statement performance -- five world records at the world championships in Barcelona last summer. Though reporters here have asked him about many conceivable combinations of medal totals -- how would he feel, for instance, about seven silvers? -- the 19-year-old has never budged from saying he would be happy with just one gold medal.

"How many people in the world have one gold medal?" Phelps asked.

His teammates have taken note of the just-one-gold-medal line. Scott Usher was said to have played off that during his turn in the spotlight in Mallorca. There was a mock interview of Phelps, played by Usher, answering questions generated to draw the same answer, "One."

Phelps had a good laugh too.

One, the loneliest number?

You won't get Phelps to admit it, but that's the number he wants in these Games -- at least seven times.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Sink or Swim

A look at the events U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps is competing in and the final dates:

*--* * 400 individual medley Aug. 14 * 200 freestyle Aug. 16 * 200 butterfly Aug. 17 * 800 freestyle relay Aug. 17 * 200 individual medley Aug. 19 * 100 butterfly Aug. 20 * 400 medley relay Aug. 21 Note: Phelps could be added to the 400 freestyle relay, Aug. 15.

*--*

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