Mark Spitz wasn't quite sure what he was going to do when he met Michael Phelps for the first time.
There was no script, no pre-programmed patter designed for the sellout crowd of 9,878 at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in downtown Long Beach on Saturday. Spitz had watched Phelps surge to his third individual title at the trials, this one in the 200-meter butterfly, and went with pure instinct, the quality always so visible in legends.
Spitz, wearing sunglasses and looking fit, accepted a huge round of applause and long ovation. He shook hands with Phelps. Phelps leaned forward and they held a quick, private conversation in the most public of settings, an award ceremony.
Spitz put the medal around Phelps' neck. Then he joined Phelps on the podium, holding the 19-year-old's arm in the air and pointed at him. Indeed, Phelps was the one to watch now. This was most legitimate endorsement of Phelps' lofty Olympian goals.
All that was missing was the flaming torch being passed and a rainbow over the harbor.
"I think he really has a chance to do this," Spitz said. "That's one of the things I told him."
He was, of course, talking about breaking his record of seven gold medals, which he achieved at the 1972 Olympics. Phelps is entered in six individual events here and is hitting three-for-three after the first four days of the trials. Though he had seemed almost nonchalant about never meeting Spitz before, the scene seemed to have a transforming effect on Phelps.
"It was an honor," Phelps said. "Having one of the best swimmers of all time up there, shaking your hand, putting your hand up in the air and saying he's behind you 100%, that's motivation right there.
"That was probably one of the most exciting moments I've had in the sport. Standing next to one of the greatest swimming icons and one of the greatest swimmers ever while he was giving me the award for the 200 fly, one of his more dominating events. It's something I will never forget."
Spitz has a deep appreciation of Phelps' difficult quest.
"One of the things Mark Spitz said to me was he was behind me and he knows exactly what I'm going through, for me to focus on the swimming and he'll be over in Athens cheering me on," Phelps said.
The standard is so high for Phelps that he expressed disappointment in his race, despite a considerable winning margin. He won the 200 butterfly in 1 minute 54.31 seconds, and 2000 gold medalist Tom Malchow was well back in 1:57.37. Phelps' world record, set last year in Barcelona, is 1:53.93.
"I don't think I was as relaxed as I could have been in the first 50 and the turns were definitely an issue," he said.
Still, only one of his three races in Long Beach, the 200 freestyle, could be considered remotely close.
A night without any American or world record swim for Phelps is rare. However, 28-year-old Jason Lezak of the Irvine Novaquatics did set an American record in the semifinals of the 100 freestyle, going 48.17. The previous mark, of 48.33, had been set by Anthony Ervin in 2001.
Lezak, who has the fastest time in the world in 2004, said this was the first of his two goals in the 100. The other is to make the Olympic team in the 100. The final is tonight and swimming in the next lane over will be Gary Hall Jr., who has the third-fastest qualifying time, 49.30.
Hall and Lezak are not friendly. It didn't help when Hall's manager downplayed any legitimate rivalry.
"It's like Spud Webb kicking Michael Jordan in the shins," David Arluck said of any Hall-Lezak rivalry.
Lezak said he had no comment Saturday morning. Then he had plenty to say.
"It does make me laugh, some of things they say. I don't know if they're trying to [tick] me off or make me laugh," he said. "Just silly stuff. Like I'm Spud Webb. Last I checked, Spud Webb was never the fastest sprinter in the world, which I was in 2002. Spud Webb wasn't even an All-Star."
His coach, Dave Salo, of the Irvine Novaquatics, did not think the comments helped motivate his swimmer.
"Quite honestly, Dave Arluck and those guys need to [stop] that rhetoric and challenge the Europeans," Salo said.
Teenagers accounted for upsets in the two other finals. Sixteen-year-old Dana Vollmer beat American-record holder Lindsay Benko, formerly of USC, in the 200 freestyle, and 15-year-old Katie Hoff defeated Amanda Beard in the 200 individual medley.
"It wasn't the best race I could have had. I'm really tired," Beard said. " ... We were pushing each other all the way to the end, but I didn't have much fuel in my tank."
It was the second individual victory for Hoff, who also won the 400 individual medley.
Beard has made the Olympic team in two events and she has one more to go, the 200 breaststroke.
Hoff has reminded many of Beard, who made her first Olympic team at 14 in 1996. Beard had a teddy bear back in those days, which she brought out onto the pool deck. And guess what?
"I have a bear too," Hoff said. "A friend gave me one of those Build-a-Bears dressed in USA attire and it's really cute. I have it with me in the hotel room."