Relay spot means Spitz's record can be had
ATHENS, Greece -- Michael Phelps got his first Olympic win -- before the Athens Games even began.
In a move that ticked off sprint star Gary Hall Jr. but should give Phelps his best chance to break Mark Spitz's record, the U.S. coaching staff tentatively reserved a spot for their most touted swimmer in the final of the 400-meter freestyle relay.
Swimming is perhaps the most highly anticipated sport at the Athens Games, beginning Saturday with Phelps as an overwhelming favorite to win his first gold medal in the 400 individual medley. He's the world record holder, going nearly four seconds faster than anyone else in the world this year.
"Obviously, he's going to win multiple gold medals," American backstroker Lenny Krayzelburg said."There's no question about that. It's just a matter of how many."
Others to watch on Day 1: Australian megastar Ian Thorpe leading the way in the 400 freestyle; Jenny Thompson going for her record-tying ninth gold medal in the women's 400 free relay; and 15-year-old Katie Hoff challenging defending Olympic champ Yana Klochkova in the women's 400 individual medley.
But the focus will be on Phelps, who has his sights on Spitz's record of seven gold medals in one games, set back in 1972 at Munich.
While Phelps insists his main goal is one gold medal, he clearly has much loftier aims. Warming up for his grueling schedule, Phelps qualified in a record six individual events at the Olympic trials last month (he dropped one for competitive reasons).
Phelps also made it clear he wanted to swim all three relays at Athens, but he skipped the 100 free that is normally used to determine the pool of swimmers for the 400 relay.
Not to worry. The American coaches were suitably impressed by Phelps' time at a February meet, which would have been good enough for second at the trials.
After a workout Friday, Hall revealed that the coveted spots in the evening final would go to Jason Lezak, Ian Crocker and Phelps -- plus a slot to be determined early Saturday.
"There were no exceptions for anyone else," Hall grumbled. "No one qualified for the Olympic team in February except Michael Phelps."
There is one scenario that could knock Phelps out of the relay final. The coaches told Hall and the other preliminary swimmers -- Nate Dusing, Neil Walker and Gabe Woodward -- that if two of them swam faster than 48.4 seconds in the morning, both would get spots in the final at the expense of Phelps.
That seems unlikely. Hall has a personal best of 48.81. Walker's top time is 48.55. Neither Woodward nor Dusing has ever broken 49 seconds.
If form holds, only the top swimmer in the morning is likely to join the evening triumvirate. That would leave Phelps with eight chances to tie or beat Spitz's record.
Phelps earned consideration for the relay team with a time of 49.05 at the Spring Nationals -- seventh-fastest in the world this year. Even so, Hall was a little perturbed by the whole situation, saying Phelps was getting special treatment.
Hall said U.S. men's coach Eddie Reese was under intense pressure to get Phelps into as many races as possible since he's being hyped as potentially the biggest star in Athens.
"If the rules applied to everyone, I would understand," Hall said."I think it's unfair to put the pressure of Michael Phelps' seven-gold-medal hunt on the shoulders of the coach. There's so much pressure on him from USA Swimming and the media."
Reese was not at the main Olympic pool Friday, working with his team at a training facility off limits to the media. He did not return several messages seeking comment.
Phelps is assured of swimming five individual events and the 800 free relay, and almost certainly will get at least a morning swim in the 400 medley relay -- with a chance to earn his way into the final if he can beat rival Crocker in the 100 butterfly.
Everyone who takes part in a relay -- either the prelims or final -- receives a medal if their team makes the podium.
The Americans are especially motivated for the 400 free relay, trying to reclaim the gold that was snatched away by the Australians four years ago.
On a raucous night in Sydney, Thorpe overtook Hall on the final leg, and Michael Klim punctuated the celebration by strumming an imaginary guitar on deck -- an obvious jab at Hall's stated desire to smash the Aussies"like guitars."
The Americans had the last laugh with 14 golds and 33 medals overall, and they're hoping to do even better in Athens. Leading the way is Phelps, who has brought unprecedented attention to U.S. swimming but obscured what should be one of the country's strongest teams.
Take Thompson, who could tie an Olympic record by winning her ninth gold medal and equal the American mark with her 11th medal overall if she swims on the relay team. Her previous golds have all come on relays, spanning the last three Olympics.
Thorpe is fortunate to have a shot in the 400 -- his best event. He was disqualified at the Australian trials when he fell off the starting block, but teammate Craig Stevens dropped out to give the Thorpedo a spot in the Olympics. The main challenger is likely to be countryman Grant Hackett, followed closely by Americans Klete Keller and Larsen Jensen.
Klochkova set a world record at Sydney in the 400 IM, but Hoff is a real up-and-comer who swims for the same club as Phelps, North Baltimore.
"I just want to jump in th [pool] and get my first swim over with," Hoff said.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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