Phelps to skip 200 back, can still equal Spitz

Updated: July 15, 2004, 12:12 AM ET
Associated Press

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Michael Phelps gave up one of his six individual events at the Athens Olympics. He should still have a chance to at least tie Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals, and he will get his fondest wish -- a showdown with the Thorpedo.

Phelps ended the suspense about his Olympic schedule Wednesday, saying he will drop the 200-meter backstroke.

He will swim the 100 and 200 butterflys, the 200 and 400 individual medleys and the 200 freestyle. He also should be on at least two -- and maybe all three -- relays.

"We don't want to spread him so thin that he compromises his chances to win events that I think he's capable of winning by trying to do too much," said his coach, Bob Bowman.

Phelps will be the overwhelming Olympic favorite in the 200 and 400 individual medleys and 200 fly; he holds the world record in all three events.

Even having dropped the 200 back, his chances of gold in the other two individual events are shakier. He must beat teammate Ian Crocker in the 100 fly, and the 200 free features world record holder Ian Thorpe of Australia and defending Olympic champion Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands.

Bowman suggested to Phelps that he also give up the 200 free, but Phelps quickly shot him down.

"One thing I always wanted to do is race Thorpe in a freestyle event," Phelps said. "This is probably the best opportunity for me to swim in probably the fastest 200 free in history. There are a lot of guys who could win the gold."

At the U.S. trials that ended Wednesday night, Phelps became the first American swimmer to qualify for six individual events.

"I didn't think he looked that good at this meet," U.S. men's coach Eddie Reese said. "He's just a lot better than he showed. He can go a lot faster."

Last Sunday and Monday, Phelps had four races each day at the trials -- including the preliminaries, semifinals and final of the 200 back, along with the prelims and semis of the 100 fly.

He came back Tuesday evening for the 100 fly final, but was beaten by Crocker's world-record swim.

"I definitely think that day and the following day he suffered," Reese said. "But he suffers at such a high level, it's hard to compare it to anything."

In discussing the decision to drop the 200 back, Bowman said it would have been reckless for Phelps to give a maximum effort in that final and then have to swim the 200 IM final -- his signature event -- the same evening in Athens.

"I would not be able to forgive myself if I raced him into the ground and someone slipped up in the 200 IM and beat him," Bowman said.

Phelps finished second to world record-holder Aaron Peirsol in the 200 back at the trials. Peirsol hasn't lost in the 200 back since his silver-medal performance at the Sydney Games.

"We decided to save the backstroke for another opportunity sometime down the road," Phelps said. "We wanted to do the best program we felt the most confident with."

Reese agreed with the decision.

"A move that is the best for him will benefit all of us," he said.

Crocker trains with Peirsol in Austin, Texas, and knows how much the 200 back means to his college teammate.

"It's a wise decision," he said of Phelps' move. "Peirsol is a hard guy to get by. I hear his inner thoughts on it, and he wasn't going to give that one up."

Phelps held the world record in the 100 fly until being upset by Crocker at last summer's world championships in Barcelona. His rival took the mark even lower at the trials.

The trials' schedule mimics the order of races at the Athens Games next month.

"To race Crocker, you're going to have to be in peak condition," Bowman said.

Bryce Hunt was expected to take Phelps' place in the 200 back; he finished third behind Peirsol and Phelps at the trials. The 22-year-old from Newburgh, Ind., would be swimming in his first Olympics.

"If that occurs, we'll do well," Reese said. "Bryce is a plus wherever he is."

Phelps is assured of anchoring the 800 free relay, but that's no guarantee of gold -- Thorpe and the Aussies won that event at Sydney.

Reese hasn't decided on his lineup for the other two relays, but Phelps is expected to swim at least the prelims of the 400 medley relay. The United States has never lost that event at the Olympics, and everyone who swims it earns a medal.

The 400 free relay is a bit dicier. Phelps didn't swim the 100 free at the trials, which usually determines who is on the relay, but he owns one of the fastest American times in the world this year. Reese said Phelps would be considered for that race.

Spitz won seven golds at the 1972 Munich Games -- four individual races and all three relays.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press