He says it with a straight face: "I want at least one gold medal." Right. And Barry Bonds wants at least 10 homers next season. When you're a swimmer who evokes comparisons to Mark Spitz, one Olympic gold is a warmup. Phelps has already broken 11 world records, including an unprecedented five at this year's world championships, and his six-and-a-half-foot wingspan puts him within reach of the seven golds Spitz snagged in 1972. Will he go for it? The 18-year-old from Baltimore hasn't said how many events he'll race next August in Athens, but Speedo is offering $1 million if Phelps catches Spitz. Either way, he's sure to make waves. "Michael has already changed the landscape," says his coach, Bob Bowman. "It's hard not to put him in the history books." At least on one page.
- ERIC ADELSON
This photo get your attention? USA Softball hopes so. The squad has won Olympic gold twice in a row, but with the National Pro Fastpitch League set to debut next year, audiences are now as important as medals. So what if fans watch the Games to see the 6'1" blonde instead of her 70 mph bombshells? They'll learn soon enough about her stunning resumé: two-time national Player of the Year at Arizona, an NCAA-record 60 straight wins, strikeouts of Richie Sexson and Paul Lo Duca as co-host of This Week in Baseball—and, yes, hottest female athlete of 2003 in the eyes of espn.com users. The 23-year-old Finch turned down Playboy, but she knows a little sizzle could go a long way for her growing sport. "If that's what sells," she says, "lets take advantage."
- ERIC ADELSON
Formula One, which already holds races in 16 countries and reaches 300 million viewers with each one, is finally rolling into the world's largest market. Next September, the 54-year-old series debuts in Shanghai with the Grand Prix of China. So it's no coincidence that the BMW Williams F1 team is testing this native driver, who won 10 of 14 races in the Formula BMW Asia series. "It's my lifetime dream come true," says Tung, a 21-year-old from Wenzhou who grew up in the Netherlands. Just don't expect him to become F1's Yao Ming overnight. His Asia series car puts out 140hp, compared to 900hp for his new ride. But it's nice to know that when he gets up to speed, he'll be assured of a race in China. After all, says F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone, "Doesn't everybody want to be there?"
- LEWIS FRANCK
Is this 14-year-old the next Pele? Or something else altogether? All he's done in the past six months is dominate the U-17 World Championships, sign a $1M deal with Nike and spurn mighty Man U to play for DC United, where he's set to earn an MLS-best $500,000 a year. "A blind man on a galloping horse can see Freddy's talent," says ex-DC coach Ray Hudson. Adu immigrated from Ghana in 1997, after his family won a green-card lottery. But it's U.S. Soccer that hit the jackpot. His pace, mesmerizing ball skills and lethal finish make him a shoo-in to start up front in the 2006 World Cup. Question is, will he be good enough to make Americans care about soccer? Now that would really be something else.
- LIAM MCHUGH
DWIGHT HOWARD, RANDOLPH MORRIS, JOSH SMITH
Leave it to the Dirty Dirty to produce prep versions of T-Mac, KG and TD on one squad. This Atlanta Celtics trio might be the best AAU front line ever. Smith, a 6'8" lefty swingman at Virginia's Oak Hill Academy, was the Class of 2004's best player last spring. That was before the ambidextrous Howard, a 6'11" power forward at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy, positioned himself to go No.1 in next year's NBA draft. But the real revelation is the 6'11" Morris, who's got a 3.6 GPA at Landmark Christian in Fairburn. If Howard is the next Garnett, then that makes Morris well, listen to his coach: "His shot selection is not as exciting and spectacular as Dwight's," says Landmark's Bryan Bartley, "but he may do more for his team." Sound like a certain Spur?
- JOHN GUSTAFSON
He's a baller on skates, a left wing who shifts speeds like a point guard. "He can beat you with or without the puck," says one NHL scout. "He's got those intangible qualities, like a Larry Bird." No wonder: Ovechkin's mom, Tatiana, played on the Soviet hoops squad that won Olympic gold in 1976 and '80. But the real assist goes to his late brother, Sergei (he died in a car accident four years ago), who urged young Alexander to enroll in hockey school. Now 18, the 6'2" Ovechkin has 16 points in 28 games for Moscow Dynamo in the Russian Elite League, where goals are hard to come by. He has so much game, in fact, that the Florida Panthers tried to take him in this year's NHL draft, even though he wasn't old enough to be eligible. Expect him to go No. 1 next June, and to fit in right away. He already knows a thing or two about the transition game.
- E.J. HRADEK
Who knew that this guy here, and not Maurice Clarett, would end up at the head of his class? Or that a player who showed up at Pitt clocking a crummy 4.7 40 and struggling to bench press 225 would make football history? But here he is, breaking NCAA receiving records (34 TDs in his first two years) and maybe, just maybe, running a skinny post to the NFL. If anybody can make it as a true sophomore, it's Fitzgerald. "The best ball skills I've ever seen," says one veteran NFL scout. "He'll have the highest grade I've ever given." The 6'3" Fitzgerald has seen every coverage ever devised. Doesn't matter. His 40 time is down to 4.4, his bench press up to 375, and his plan for next year is anybody's guess. Will he challenge the NFL in court? Larry's not saying. But if there's an opening, he'll find it.
- GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI
"I am Maria Sharapova and not anyone else." You can understand her adamance. There's the accent, the ponytail, the potential—the inevitable comparisons to Anna K. But this Russian stunner has actually won a tourney. Two, in fact. "I don't like to lose," Sharapova says. "I don't give up. I'm tough." Tough like her parents, who were expecting their first (and only) child when they fled Belarus for Siberia in 1986, to avoid radiation from the Chernobyl disaster. (They would later settle in Florida.) Tough enough as a 7-year-old to show up uninvited at Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Academy and wow the instructors with her first stroke. Now 16, the six-foot Sharapova has pounded her way from No.186 to No. 32 in the world over the past year. "She plays without fear," says her coach, Robert Lansdorp. Which makes sense. She's not the one who should be afraid.
- LINDSAY BERRA