Commentary

Handicapping Phelps' run at Olympic glory

Updated: August 17, 2008, 2:20 AM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

[Editor's note: We will update Phelps' progress after each race, so check back for all the results here.]

Event No. 1: 400-meter individual medley
When is the final: Sunday morning Beijing time, Saturday night in the U.S.
How hard is it: Third-toughest of Phelps' eight.

It's a grueling opener, especially given the competition from fellow American Ryan Lochte. Phelps holds the world record in the event, but Lochte pressed him every stroke of the way at the U.S. trials in Omaha, Neb., before losing by less than a second.

Phelps described that as "one of the most painful races of my life."

This one will hurt, too. Expect a near-dead heat heading into the final 50 meters.

The only other swimmer in the world who has come within three seconds of Phelps' current record time is Hungarian Laszlo Cseh. Phelps has a healthy respect for Cseh, who lowered his personal best in the event by more than 1.5 seconds in June. But given a full taper over the past month -- Phelps wasn't fully rested for the trials -- it would be a sizable upset for him to lose his first race of these Games.

SUNDAY'S END RESULT: Phelps kept pace with teammate Lochte and Hungary's Cseh during his weakest discipline, the breaststroke, before putting the hammer down in the freestyle to win his first gold of the Games in world-record time (4:03.84). Phelps' gold count: 1-for-1.

[+] EnlargeAlain Bernard
Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty ImagesOne of Michael Phelps' main rivals in Beijing will be French swimmer Alain Bernard.
Event No. 2: 4x100 free relay
When is the final: Monday morning Beijing time, Sunday night in the U.S.
How hard is it: Toughest race of the meet.

The relays are only 25 percent in Phelps' control -- he will have to rely on his three teammates to close the deal. That's especially true in the 400 free relay, where Phelps is not individually dominant as a 100 freestyler and where the U.S. should get a fight from the French.

Frenchman Alain Bernard has posted the fastest 100-meter free time in the world this year (47.5 seconds), and France has four of the top 18 swimmers worldwide in that event this year. The U.S. has four of the top eight (including Phelps at No. 5, based on a prelim time he swam in Omaha to assure his spot on the relay).

If the Americans have four swimmers who can turn in sub-48-second splits, they should win. If one (or more) of them turns in a bad swim, it could derail Phelps' quest.

MONDAY'S END RESULT: Michael Phelps almost saw his run end, but Jason Lezak came back in the final leg of the 4x100 relay to help the U.S. men edge France to win gold in world-record time (3:08.24) in one of the most memorable relay races in Olympic history. Phelps' gold count: 2-for-2.

Event No. 3: 200 freestyle
When is the final: Tuesday morning Beijing time, Monday night in the U.S.
How hard is it: Seventh-toughest.

Phelps should dominate this event. He's got 1.75 seconds on his closest competition in 2008 times. The X factor could be Dutch Olympic veteran Pieter van den Hoogenband, a former world-record holder in this event who won gold in Sydney in 2000 and finished second ahead of Phelps in Athens in '04. He has pulled some big upsets in his time, including beating superstar Aussie Ian Thorpe in his home country eight years ago. But van de Hoogenband is now 30, and his '08 best is nearly three seconds behind Phelps.

TUESDAY'S END RESULT: Phelps easily won his third gold of the Games for his ninth career gold medal, tying for the most career Olympics gold medals. In one of his strongest events, Phelps also broke his own world record (1:42.96). Phelps' gold count: 3-for-3.

Event No. 4: 200 butterfly
When is the final: Wednesday morning Beijing time, Tuesday night in the U.S.
How hard is it: Easiest of the bunch.

This is Phelps' baby. He has held the world record for nearly 7½ years and has posted the five fastest times in the history of the event. A mistimed finish in the U.S. trials is probably the only thing that separated him from lowering his own record -- he missed by .11 seconds.

The only other swimmer in the all-time top nine times in the 200 fly is American teammate Gil Stovall, who finished 1.66 seconds behind Phelps at the trials. Stovall is an Olympic rookie who will be racing for silver, as will everyone else in the final.

WEDNESDAY'S END RESULT: It wasn't even close, folks. In his strongest discipline, Phelps controlled the race from the beginning to win the 200-meter butterfly, breaking his own world record in the process and becoming the most decorated gold medalist (10) in Olympic history. Phelps' gold count: 4-for-4.

Event No. 5: 4x200 free relay
When is the final: Wednesday morning Beijing time, Tuesday night in the U.S.
How hard is it: Fifth-toughest.

Again, Phelps will need his teammates to come through for him -- but they should be up to the challenge. Australia is the traditional rival in this event, having won gold in 2000 and being touched out by the Americans by .13 in '04.

The United States' top four relay members in this event all rank among the top six in the world this year, while the Aussies have nobody higher than 12th. The Americans smoked Australia by nearly 7 seconds in this event at the 2007 world championships.

This will be a tough night for Phelps individually, swimming two finals.

WEDNESDAY'S END RESULT: Phelps chose to swim the first leg of the relay, and he immediately set the tone. Phelps built an almost insurmountable lead, and by the time Peter Vanderkaay swam the anchor leg, the Americans held a five-body-length lead. It was Phelps' fifth world record and fifth gold in his fifth race. Phelps' gold count: 5-for-5.

Event No. 6: 200 individual medley
When is the final: Friday morning Beijing time, Thursday night in the U.S.
How hard is it: Second-toughest.

This will be Phelps-Lochte II, and it could be closer than Phelps-Lochte I. In fact, some believe if Lochte pulls the upset in the 400 IM, he'll win this one, too.

Phelps nipped his rival by 0.42 seconds in Omaha, when Lochte was coming off a thrilling 200 backstroke final less than 30 minutes earlier. This time, Lochte has only a backstroke semifinal earlier in the night, and he won't have to empty the tank to reach the final in that. So he should be more rested than he was at the trials. Cseh could have an outside shot in this event, as well.

But Phelps always has a way -- a will -- to reach the wall first. The better the competition, the stronger his response. "I like to see him challenged because that really brings out his best," Phelps' coach Bob Bowman said.

FRIDAY'S END RESULT: Phelps dominated right from the start of the 200-meter IM and powered away to win in 1:54.23, another world record. Less than an hour later, Phelps won his 100 butterfly qualifier. Phelps' gold count: 6-for-6.

Event No. 7: 100 butterfly
When is the final: Saturday morning Beijing time, Friday night in the U.S.
How hard is it: Fourth-toughest.

This is the only individual event in which Phelps doesn't own the world record. That belongs to countryman Ian Crocker -- and Crocker can lock in completely on this event while Phelps is swimming himself silly for a week to get to this point. Advantage: Crocker.

But Phelps is the superior competitor and the stronger swimmer mentally. Crocker's concentration and confidence can waver, as was evident when he got the American medley relay disqualified at the '07 world championships (costing Phelps eight golds there) and then false-started his way out of the 100 freestyle preliminaries at the trials.

Phelps has had Crocker's number recently in head-to-head swims, and his three 100 fly times in Omaha all were faster than anything Crocker has posted in '08. The only other competitor to watch here is France's Fred Bousquet, who swam at Auburn and has the third-fastest time in the world this year.

If Phelps' streak is still intact at this point, the mental strain will be reaching its peak. Expect him to handle it.

"If they gave black belts for handling pressure, he's about a sixth-degree black belt," U.S. men's coach Eddie Reese said.

SATURDAY'S END RESULT: Just when the quest couldn't get any better, it did. Phelps won his seventh gold medal in Saturday's 100-meter butterfly, edging Milorad Cavic of Serbia by the smallest unit of measurement. Phelps won it at the touch, despite chopping his finish, by one-hundredth of a second. Phelps' gold count: 7-for-7.

Event No. 8: 4x100 medley relay
When is the final: Sunday morning Beijing time, Saturday night in the U.S.
How hard is it: Sixth-toughest.

This is the final event of the meet, which will heighten the drama. But, by this point, it could be a coronation more than a competition. Yes, Phelps will need strong swims from his teammates to seal the deal, but his supporting cast is completely capable.

World-record holder Aaron Peirsol will swim the leadoff backstroke leg, with '04 relay gold medalist Brendan Hansen likely to follow in breaststroke. If the race isn't over at that point, expect Phelps to put it out of reach in the butterfly and set up a leisurely freestyle leg for whoever finishes it off. (If Phelps is beaten by Crocker in the 100 fly, Phelps might swim the prelim and Crocker the final -- but both would get gold medals.)

America has never lost an Olympic 400 medley relay. (Australia won in 1980 when the U.S. boycotted.) Don't expect that to change now -- especially if Phelps has the great eight within his grasp.

SUNDAY'S END RESULT: The relay team of Peirsol (backstroke), Hansen (breaststroke), Phelps (butterfly) and Lezak (freestyle) won gold, helping Phelps pass Mark Spitz for an unprecedented eighth gold medal in the same Olympics. Phelps' gold count: 8-for-8.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.