Saturday, July 10, 2004

Phelps shows no sign of stopping

Coughlin wins her first trip to Olympics

By Paul Newberry
The Associated Press

LONG BEACH, Calif. - Michael Phelps vs. the Thorpedo. Two of the world's best swimmers going head-to-head at the Olympics. Pretty appealing, huh?

Phelps set up a potential Athens showdown with Ian Thorpe by winning the 200-meter freestyle at the U.S. Olympic trials Friday - clearly the most intriguing part of the quest to break Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals.

"I love to race the best," said Phelps, who also would have to contend with Dutch star Pieter van den Hoogenband, an upset winner over Thorpe at the Sydney Olympics. "It definitely would be a little appealing."

Natalie Coughlin, the most heralded U.S. woman in the pool, finally made her first Olympic team by winning the 100 backstroke. On the men's side, friendly rivals Aaron Peirsol and Lenny Krayzelburg went 1-2 in the 100 back.

Also Friday, Amanda Beard made her third straight Olympic team over a formidable field in the 100 breaststroke. She held off four-time NCAA champion Tara Kirk and three other former Olympians.

Phelps entered six individual events at the American trials with an eye toward breaking Spitz's record from the 1972 Munich Games. Just 42 minutes after his victory in the 200 free, Phelps returned to the pool to win his heat in the semifinals of the 200 butterfly.

The 19-year-old from Baltimore also hopes to swim on all three relay teams in Athens, giving him up to nine events to chase down Spitz.

The 200 free would be Phelps' only individual race against Thorpe, who has basically become a freestyle specialist. It also presents the longest odds of winning gold, which is why the American phenom didn't rule out the possibility of withdrawing if he feels the event would interfere with his other races.

Phelps holds three world records (200 butterfly, 200 and 400 individual medley) and the second-fastest times ever in the 100 fly and 200 back. As for the 200 free, that's ruled by Thorpe.

He has turned in eight of the top nine times in history, including the world record of 1 minute, 44.06 seconds. Phelps holds the American record, nearly 2 seconds slower at 1:45.99.

"We're going to see how things play out," said Phelps, whose winning time Friday was 1:46.27.

Then again, van den Hoogenband showed in Sydney that Thorpe is not invincible. Phelps would clearly relish a chance to knock off the Aussie star in one of his best events.

"He's been extremely dominant over the last four years," Phelps said.

Knowing he had another race to go, Phelps didn't push too hard in the 200 free. Also, he was hurt by a poor start - diving into the water slower than any of the other seven finalists.

"I don't know if I didn't dry the (starting) block off," Phelps said. "It's something to pay more attention to in the future."

Added his coach, Bob Bowman: "It was a real slow start, and that cost him the American record."

But Phelps caught early leader Nate Dusing midway through the third leg, then held off Klete Keller at the finish.

"He just never gets rattled," Bowman said.

Keller, who already had made the team by winning the 400 free, claimed another spot by taking second at 1:46.87.

For the first time at the trials, a day passed without a world record being set at the portable pool constructed along the waterfront in Long Beach. Phelps broke his own record in the 400 individual medley Wednesday, and Brendan Hansen produced a new mark in the 100 breaststroke Thursday.

In the 200 fly, Phelps moved on to the final with the best semifinal time, 1:56.66. He'll be matched against Tom Malchow, the defending gold medalist from Sydney.

"I felt pretty comfortable," Phelps said. "I'm happy with the time. It puts me in good shape for (Saturday's) race."

Peirsol just missed Krayzelburg's world record, coming up four-hundredths short in 53.64. Krayzelburg kept his mark and, as a bonus, claimed an expected spot on the Olympic team by touching the wall second. He was a mere tenth of a second ahead of Peter Marshall.

Jeff Rouse, the 1992 gold medalist who returned from a six-year retirement, missed out by finishing sixth.

"This heat was absolutely spectacular," said Peirsol, who finished second to Krayzelburg in the 200 back at Sydney. "I tried to remember I've been working for this moment the last four years."

While Krayzelburg didn't win, he was clearly relieved to be the runner-up. The winner of three gold medals in Sydney, he has struggled with shoulder problems since then and conceded that he's still swimming in pain.

After lunging at the end to beat out Marshall, Krayzelburg pumped a fist in the air. He then looked over at Peirsol, who gave a thumbs-up.

"It was a mighty close race. This had to be maybe the greatest race ever with all the experience," Krayzelburg said. "My shoulder is quite a bit sore."

Afterward, the popular swimmer could hardly take a step on the pool deck without someone coming up to offer congratulations or give him a hug.

"It's humbling," Krayzelburg said. "I appreciate all the support."

Coughlin, who failed to make the team at the 2000 trials, bounced back from that disappointment to win easily at 59.85. She's the only woman to break the 1-minute barrier in the 100 back, doing it for the third time, but fell short of her 2-year-old world record of 59.58.

It didn't matter. Coughlin emerged from the water with a big smile, waving to the crowd and hugging runner-up Haley Cope, who finished with a time of 1:01.24.

"It is very much a relief," Coughlin said. "I knew it was in me. It was just about getting it done. Now I can relax and enjoy the rest of the meet."

Beard, who has won four medals at the last two Olympics, will get a chance to add to her haul at Athens. She definitely earned this trip, winning the 100 breaststroke in 1:07.64.

Kirk was right behind in 1:07.69, while ex-Olympian Megan Quann came up just short of an Athens berth at 1:07.90. Among the other former Olympians, Staciana Stitts was fourth (1:08.00) and Kristy Kowal seventh (1:08.90).

"It's definitely as exciting as the first two," said Beard, a teenage sensation at the 1996 Atlanta Games. "You never get used to this feeling."

Like Phelps, Beard pulled double duty during the evening session. She came back after her breaststroke victory to lead semifinal qualifying in the 200 IM at 2:12.02.

"It's fun," Beard said. "I train my body hard to do stuff like this. I had a lot of adrenaline that took me right through my IM."

In the women's 200 free, American record-holder Lindsey Benko advanced to Saturday's final with the top time of 1:59.36 in the semis.

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