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Big Talent Pool

Phelps may own show, but two with Southland ties stand in way

June 29, 2004|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

There will be other swimmers in the pool next week in downtown Long Beach besides superstar-on-deck Michael Phelps.

Really.

Some even with Olympic medals already in their possession and world-record notations after their names, going for spots at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, which start July 7.

And what goes on in the lanes to the right and left of Phelps as he begins his pursuit of legend Mark Spitz's record seven gold medals in one Olympics could be significant. As brilliant and consistent as Phelps has been in the last three years, he has not been unbeatable, most notably in his loss to Ian Crocker in the 100-meter butterfly at last summer's World Championships in Barcelona, Spain.

Two swimmers with Southern California ties also have touched the wall ahead of Phelps, one recently, the other not so recently. Erik Vendt, formerly of USC, beat Phelps in the 400 individual medley at the Janet Evans Invitational two years ago. Then weeks later, Phelps and Vendt both beat the world record in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with Phelps winning. Since then, Phelps has been busy rewriting his 400 record.

Aaron Peirsol's victories against Phelps carry more significance because of the timing. Peirsol, who grew up in Orange County and went to Newport Harbor High School, beat Phelps twice a few weeks ago at Santa Clara in the 100 and 200 backstroke. Phelps may now be wondering whether he wants to challenge Peirsol, the world-record holder, in the 200.

Peirsol: The Backstroker

Peirsol isn't sweating Phelps' scheduling decision. In fact, he doesn't really sweat much. He turned professional after two years at the University of Texas and was asked about his biggest learning experience in Austin.

"To get an air-conditioned car during the summertime," he said.

His former coach, Dave Salo of the Irvine Novaquatics, said in March that Peirsol had left a message on his answering machine about facing Phelps, to the effect of, bring it on.

"He's been inspired by Mike going after the record," Salo said. "And he's been inspired by Mike's secrecy, as to whether he's going to swim it or not."

Peirsol, who won the silver medal at the 2000 Olympics as a 17-year-old in the 200 backstroke, set the world record in that event in 2002, going 1:55.15. He won the 100 backstroke in 53.61 and the 200 backstroke in 1:55.92, and swam on the winning 400 medley relay at Barcelona.

He admitted that Phelps had pushed him in Santa Clara in late May.

"I probably wouldn't have gone that fast without him there," Peirsol said. "It was great to have him there. It's awfully good for confidence too. He's 0-2 on me, I'm 2-0 on him. He's got that in his head. I have that in mine."

Another rarity is in his head. Peirsol and his younger sister, Hayley, both will be trying to make the Olympic team. In Barcelona last summer, they won medals on the same day, he the gold in the 100 backstroke and she the silver in the 1,500 freestyle. Her best shot is in the 800 freestyle, because the 1,500 is not an Olympic event for women. They had typical sibling battles, according to Peirsol. He told USA Swimming's website that Hayley once called the police on him -- when he was 7 and she was 5. It was a source of amusement to the Peirsols then and remains so.

"She was so young at that point, she didn't know the consequences," he said in an interview last week. "My mom was like, 'What did you do?' ... but we always got along really well."

And now?

"It'd be awesome. I'd be happy for her," he said of their both swimming in Athens. "Even if she doesn't, she'll be my little Olympian."

Vendt: The Medley Man

He likes the element of surprise.

Vendt seemed to come out of nowhere at the 2000 trials, when everyone was talking about the duel between Tom Dolan and Tom Wilkens in the 400 individual medley. He finished second at trials behind Dolan and at the Olympics in Sydney.

Now, there is the massive presence of Phelps, as well as Phelps' teammate Kevin Clements. In Vendt's favorite race, the 1,500 freestyle, there is world-record holder Grant Hackett of Australia.

"The way I look at it, in order to win a gold medal, I'm going to have to tackle one or two giants, maybe both," Vendt said. "So that's the role I like. I like the underdog role."

His coach at USC, Mark Schubert, says Vendt has merely scratched the surface of his potential in the individual medley.

"He's just so good in all four strokes, so tough and such a good racer," Schubert said. "It never really dawned on him how good he was until the trials. His breaststroke has continually improved. I think he could probably be a world-class breaststroker if that's what he concentrated on."

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