For Phelps, it's one and counting

Updated: August 14, 2004, 9:28 PM ET
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- Michael Phelps wasn't taking any chances.

The night before, he fired up by watching the movie "Miracle."

While on deck at the Olympic pool, he had Eminem's "'Till I Collapse" blaring in his headphones. Before climbing atop the starting block, he stared down the 50-meter strip of water.

"I was more ready for this," Phelps said, "than I've ever been."

Now the first gold's out of the way.

He's an Olympic champion -- just like Mark Spitz.

Phelps began his quest to overtake Spitz's 1972 record haul of seven gold medals with a dominating performance in the 400-meter individual medley, breaking his own world record Saturday night and claiming the first U.S. gold medal of the Athens Games.

It was a rousing start to the much-anticipated Olympic swim meet. Before the night was done, Ian Thorpe won his second straight gold in the 400 freestyle -- a race he got into only through the generosity of an Australian teammate -- and Jenny Thompson was denied her record-tying ninth gold medal when she gave up the lead to Australia on the final leg of the 400 free relay.

"It was a change of pace for me to be passed by someone," Thompson said. "It's usually the other way around."

The Aussies got the upper hand in their spirited swim rivalry with the Americans, winning two of the night's four races. But the powerful U.S. team claimed five medals in all, more than any other country on the first of eight days at the sweltering outdoor pool.

Phelps and teammate Erik Vendt got things started with a 1-2 finish. Phelps touched the wall in 4 minutes, 8.26 seconds, while Vendt was more than 3½ seconds behind but good enough for silver at 4:11.81.

Phelps is just getting warmed up. He will likely swim in eight events, giving him a chance to break Spitz's record at the Munich Games.

So far, Phelps is following the script of the greatest swimmer in Olympic history: All seven of Spitz's wins were in record time.

"I'm a little bit less nervous," said Phelps, 19, of Baltimore. "I've got one off my shoulders and can relax a little bit." Phelps was clearly locked in as he strolled on deck with a towel around his neck, using it to wipe down the starting block. He stripped off his warmup suit, took off his headphones and didn't even look up when his name was called.

"He seemed like he was pretty intense," said Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman. "Mentally, he knows what he's up against."

The first gold was easy enough. Phelps had a body-length lead after the butterfly, stretched it to more than three seconds during the backstroke and cruised to victory in the breaststroke and freestyle.

His only challenger was the clock. After touching the wall, Phelps turned quickly toward the scoreboard to see his time -- 0.15 better than the record he set last month at the U.S. Olympic trials.

After a moment of apparent disbelief, he swam across a couple of lane ropes to give Vendt a hug.

"We have one main goal, and that's to emerge as the most dominant Olympic men's team in history," Vendt said. "When he saw I got second, it seemed he was more excited about that than his own race. It just shows the kind of guy Michael is. He's a team player."

During the medal ceremony, Phelps seemed a bit baffled about where he was supposed to stand before getting his award, though he'll probably have plenty of practice over the next week.

He climbed the podium and leaned over to have a gold medal draped around his neck and an olive wreath placed on his head. During "The Star-Spangled Banner," Phelps removed the wreath and held it over his heart -- much like he would a baseball cap -- and quietly mouthed the words.

"I was sitting back enjoying how happy he was," Bowman said. "I don't think I've ever seen him that happy."

Phelps said all along that one gold would make him happy. He sure seemed to mean it as he strolled around the deck, proudly holding up his medal as he posed for photographers.

"My goal is right here," he said, showing off the medal yet again. "I'm perfectly happy. Coming in, I said I wanted one gold medal, and now I have one gold medal."

But, in all likelihood, there are seven more races to go, and Bowman already was looking ahead. Next up: the 400 free relay on Sunday.

"He broke the record without it taking too much out of him," the coach pointed out.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press