Phelps off to record start at trials

Updated: July 8, 2004, 3:59 PM ET
Associated Press

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Michael Phelps claimed the first spot on the U.S. Olympic swim team with a world-record performance. He believes he can go even faster in Athens.

The 19-year-old from Baltimore broke his own record in the 400-meter individual medley with a time of 4 minutes, 8.41 seconds Wednesday on the opening night of the trials.

"I wanted to go into the Olympics with the fastest time in the world," he said.

Phelps set the previous record of 4:09.09 last year in the world championships in Barcelona, where he became the first swimmer in history to break five world records in one meet.

There's no telling what he'll do in his other five events in the eight-day trials. Phelps' goal is to break Mark Spitz's 32-year-old record of seven Olympic gold medals.

"There are a few things I can fix, so at least I hope there's another hundredth or tenth in that race," he said about possibly lowering his latest world mark in Athens.

Phelps easily advanced in the 200 freestyle, with a time of 1:48.40 in the preliminaries Thursday morning. Klete Keller, who already made the team, was faster in 1:48.15. The semifinals were in the evening.

"Same as yesterday, I felt comfortable and relaxed," Phelps said. "I know I have a lot of events. There's a lot of great competitors in every event."

Natalie Coughlin, also expected to emerge as a star in Athens, opened her bid for an Olympic berth as the fastest qualifier in the 100 backstroke Thursday morning. Her time of 1:00.71 set a trials record, but was well off her world record of 59.58. The semifinals were at night.

"The plan was simply to get out there and get the jitters out," said Teri McKeever, Coughlin's coach. "If you feel good, great, keep going. We had no expectations about the time. We're just trying to take it in steps."

Lenny Krayzelburg, the defending Olympic champion and world recordholder, led all qualifiers in the 100 backstroke. He finished in 54.91 and was the only swimmer in his heat who didn't wear a cap over his short hair.

Aaron Peirsol, who won silver behind Krayzelburg in the 200 back at Sydney, was second-fastest in 55.59. Jeff Rouse, the 1996 Olympic champion making a comeback at 34, qualified for the evening semifinals in seventh.

The women's 100 breaststroke preliminaries were dominated by four former Olympians. Staciana Stitts, a relay gold medalist in Sydney, turned in the third-fastest time in the world this year of 1:07.20 to lead the way. She just missed the American record of 1:07.05 set four years ago by Megan Quann.

"I'll try to be faster tonight," Stitts said. "That was just a morning swim. The first race is over. I got the jitters out, now I can come back refocused."

Amanda Beard, the silver medalist in the 1996 Atlanta Games, followed with the world's fourth-fastest time of 1:07.62. Kristy Kowal, who won silver in the 200 at Sydney, and defending Olympic champion Quann also made the evening semifinals.

Diana Munz provided the biggest surprise in Thursday's preliminaries when she finished ninth in the 400 free -- apparently two-hundredths of a second out of the last spot in the final. But the silver medalist from Sydney got in when Lindsay Benko, the second-fastest qualifier, dropped out to focus on the 200 free.

USA Swimming officials said Benko just wanted to get in an extra swim and planned all along to withdraw because she feels her best chance for Olympic gold is the 200. But Munz didn't know until about 10 minutes after the prelims.

"I should go give her a big hug," Munz said, breaking into a wide smile. "I would do just about anything for her right now."

Brooke Bennett, the Olympic champion in Sydney, qualified eighth in 4:12.41. Kaitlin Sandeno, who has likely made the team in the 400 individual medley, was the fastest in 4:09.81.

Three-time Olympian Jenny Thompson, who has a record 10 Olympic medals but not an individual gold, qualified for the 100 butterfly final Thursday night. She was fifth fastest in the semifinals at 59.17 seconds.

"I look to get better and better," she said.

Ed Moses and Brendan Hansen, who shared the American record, set up a showdown in the 100 breaststroke final Thursday night.

Hansen's semifinal time of 1:00.13 gave him sole possession of the American record and just missed the world mark of 59.78 set by Japan's Kosuke Kitajima. Moses qualified fourth at 1:01.82.

Phelps was off record pace through the opening butterfly leg of the 400 IM, but made up for it in the backstroke. He even had a chance to sneak a glimpse at the scoreboard.

"If there's a clock there, I'm going to look," Phelps said.

The crowd of more than 7,000 fans chanted "Go! Go! Go!" each time Phelps poked his head above water during the breaststroke. They rose to their feet as he powered to the wall during the freestyle portion.

"Maybe it looked effortless, but it didn't feel effortless," he said, grinning.

Erik Vendt finished second to Phelps, more than 5½ seconds behind in 4:14.09.

"For me, getting second and making the team is just as good as winning," Vendt said.

Phelps wasn't the only impressive swimmer in the 400 IM.

Katie Hoff, a 15-year-old from the same North Baltimore club as Phelps, swam the second-fastest time by an American to win in 4:37.67. She just missed Summer Sanders' 12-year-old national mark of 4:37.58.

"During the first 200, I was going, 'OK, OK, don't worry about anybody else. Just stick to my plan,'" she said. "On the breaststroke, I tried to start passing people. On the last 100, the crowd came in and started cheering. I tried to come home very fast."

Sandeno, an Olympic medalist from Sydney, was second in 4:40.39.

Keller won the 400 freestyle with an American record of 3:44.19, more than 2 seconds better than Phelps' mark set last August. Larsen Jensen was second at 3:46.56 -- also under the previous record.


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press