Despite Phelps' dominance, it won't be easy

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- The Australians said it. Two Americans proved it.

From the other side of the world, in swimming obsessed Australia, champions Kieran Perkins and Ian Thorpe were on record as doubting if American would-be legend Michael Phelps can contend for seven or more Olympic gold medals in next month's Athens Games. They timed their comments to coincide with the U.S. trials contested here the past week. Perkins said Phelps is "unproven."

Not so easily dismissed as a holder of five world records, Phelps, 19, cast aside the Aussie taunts. He said they'd be motivators. But Phelps found it much tougher to cast aside the talent of his own American teammates. With raw power and technique, not words, Aaron Peirsol and Ian Crocker elevated their world-record standards and sprinkled a bit of sanity into the rarified air surrounding Phelps.

As the trials enter their final day, the idea has diminished that Phelps is an invincible force who will sweep seven medals to join Mark Spitz on the peak he has occupied since 1972. But little else has been diminished. Phelps, qualifying in a U.S.-record six individual events and winning four, will remain the fixture of American swimming in Athens. And Team USA appears poised to again join Australia in a two-nation race for world supremacy in swimming.

Despite finishing in the shadow of Crocker's world-record 100 butterfly (50.76 seconds) Tuesday night and Peirsol's world-record 200 backstroke (1:54.74) a day earlier, Phelps was a worn-out but not nearly fed-up competitor.

"It's definitely something special," Phelps said of his six Olympic berths in individual events. "I can say that I've done something no one else has ever done before. I can go back to that quote of being the first Michael Phelps, not the second Mark Spitz."

Crocker, 21, a Maine-born, University of Texas product, owns three of the five fastest 100 butterfly times in the world. He topped Phelps last summer at world championships with a world record, at a meet where Phelps was on a roll. Tuesday was no shocker.

"I really wanted to go world record [pace] to set myself up for Athens," Crocker said. "It was mostly relief [post-race] because I haven't really felt that great in the water here. It's a great feeling, but I am being a little reserved because I know there is so much more still to go [in August]."

In fact, Crocker's coach and the U.S. Olympic team head coach Eddie Reese, was quick to shoot down the notion that it was a night for crazed celebration. "You need to know," Reese said defiantly, "that [trials records] gets us nothing in the Olympics."

Similar sobriety is controlling emotions within the Phelps camp. Coming into trials, Phelps did not discourage talk of heading to Athens with a plan of competing in six individual events and at least one relay. He did not discourage talk of taking a shot at the all-time record -- a number north of seven gold.

But after touching the wall in the last event of his manic Monday, in which Phelps swam a prelim, one semifinal and two finals, he appeared to hit the wall of physical and mental reality. The Athens schedule is virtually identical.

"There will be some decisions made in the next 24 hours," said Phelps, who was intending to celebrate his trials achievements with a big meal, featuring "fatty" foods, followed by a lengthy conference with his coach from North Baltimore Aquatic, Bob Bowman. "We're going to swim the events we're most confident with. Bob and I are going to have to go over some options."

Asked if an altered game plan would include a minimum of five individual events [instead of six], Phelps replied, "I have no idea. I couldn't say."

What is far less uncertain is that Phelps not only must deal with the formidable presence of Crocker and Peirsol in two events but also is turning his attention to the wider Olympic field that will be coming after him. Plus there are other obstacles in his quest for seven or even eight gold medals, consider:

  • In the 100 fly, Crocker is the man, but Sweden's Lars Frolander was singled out as a lurking factor by Phelps.

  • In the 200 and 400 individual medleys, Phelps is the world record holder but must be aware, at the least, of Hungarian teen Laszlo Cseh in the 400 IM.

  • The 200 freestyle is extremely tough to call, with the presence of Australians Grant Hackett and Thorpe, the world record holder on and off since 1999, and Dutch menace Peter van den Hoogenband, who upset Thorpe for Olympic gold four years ago at the Sydney Games.

  • Peirsol shows no signs of backing down from another 200 backstroke world mark.

  • Phelps earned a spot on the 800 relay team, however, there's no letup in the swirl of intrigue about whether Phelps should or will get a free pass onto another, especially the 4x100, for the all-important chance to not only tie but also break the record. He did not compete in the 100 freestyle in the trials meet to prove officially worthy of the 4x100. Reese and his staff make the call there.

    Sprinter Gary Hall Jr., 29, shortly after winning the 50-meter freestyle Tuesday against his top adversary, Jason Lezak, 28, addressed the relay issue yet again. He was more diplomatic this time. The day before, Hall said freestyle qualifiers typically get a shot at the 400 free relay as a reward "for a lifetime of work."

    Tuesday Hall said, simply, "Michael's got a lot on his plate."

    And he wasn't talking about Phelps' dinner plans in Long Beach.