Sunday, July 11, 2004

Spitz passes baton as Phelps makes it three in a row

By Paul Newberry
The Associated Press

LONG BEACH, Calif. - Mark Spitz draped the medal around Michael Phelps' neck and pulled the teenager close, whispering in his ear.

Then Spitz hopped atop the podium, held Phelps' right hand in the air and pointed at him as if to say, "He's the man now."

The swimming baton was passed Saturday.

Michael Phelps made it three in a row at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, dominating the 200-meter butterfly to stay on course in his bid to break Spitz's record of seven gold medals.

In a symbolic moment, the two met for the first time during the award ceremony. It seemed as if Spitz was giving his blessing for the 19-year-old to take down one of sport's most revered records when he gets to Athens next month.

"I think he really has a chance to do this," said Spitz, who won his seven golds at the 1972 Munich Games. "That's one of the things I told him."

The only disappointment for Phelps: He came up just short of his own world record in the 200 fly, going out a little too fast and fading to a time of 1 minute, 54.31 seconds. The mark that still stands, 1:53.93, was set at last year's world championships.

It was Phelps' third individual win of the trials, following a world-record performance in the 400 individual medley and Friday's victory in the 200 freestyle. He has three more individual events to swim at the trials, facing his busiest schedule yet on Sunday and Monday. If all goes well, he will swim eight races over those two days.

"I'm feeling pretty good right now," he said.

Phelps also has earned a spot on the 800 freestyle relay team and hopes to swim the other two relays, as well, giving him as many as nine chances to eclipse Spitz.

And now - finally - the two have met.

"Wow!" Phelps said. "That's probably one of the most exciting moments I've had in sports."

Former world record-holder Tom Malchow won the 200 fly at the Sydney Games, while Phelps finished fifth at age 15. The tide turned over the past four years, with Phelps maturing into the world's most dominant swimmer.

Malchow also is likely to make the team after finishing second to Phelps, though he's fallen far behind the teenager. The defending Olympic gold medalist was more than three seconds behind at 1:57.37.

"Something's not right," the 27-year-old Malchow said. "I don't know if it's physical or mental. I'm getting a little older, and I really felt it this weekend."

In the womens's 200 freestyle, 16-year-old Dana Vollmer upset American record-holder Lindsay Benko in the final. Benko scratched from the 400 free to focus on the shorter event, but Vollmer caught her at the finish to win with a time of 1:59.20.

Benko held on for second at 1:59.29, while Kaitlin Sandeno and Rhi Jeffrey also earned relay spots by finishing third and fourth.

Vollmer has a rare ailment that could cause her heart to stop at any time. She keeps a defibrillator nearby while competing, but refuses to give up the sport she loves.

"I don't accept that anything is wrong with me," Vollmer said.

Sandeno had a grueling night, swimming two events just 15 minutes apart. She had the fifth-fastest time in the 200 butterfly, advancing to Sunday's final. Dana Kirk was the top qualifier at 2:09.36.

In the other final Saturday, 15-year-old Katie Hoff knocked off three-time Olympian Amanda Beard in the 200 individual medley with a time of 2:12.06. Hoff is a member of the same swim club as Phelps, North Baltimore.

Beard took second and a likely Olympic spot at 2:12.43. Both already had made the team by winning other events - Beard the 100 breaststroke, Hoff the 400 IM.

"I was just trying to give (Beard) a good race," Hoff said.

In the men's 100 freestyle, tensions between eight-time Olympic medalist Gary Hall Jr. and Jason Lezak bubbled over again after they met for the first time.

Lezak, who earned his lone gold by swimming a relay prelim at Sydney, bristled at comments by Hall's agent, David Arluck, who compared any talk of a rivalry to "Spud Webb kicking Michael Jordan in the shins."

"Spud Webb was never the fastest sprinter in the world, which I was in 2002," Lezak said. "I don't know what those guys are thinking about."

At the spring nationals, Hall accused Lezak of spitting in his lane before a race, calling it a weak attempt to psych out his opponent. But Lezak has never acknowledged the spitting, saying it's hard to consider Hall an adversary when he spends much of his time away from the pool in non-Olympic years.

"Honestly, he hasn't even been around here for four years," Lezak said. "He just shows up for the Olympics."

Lezak sent a message in the semifinals, setting an American record of 48.17. Hall put up the third best time, 49.30, sending them both to Sunday's final.

"I'm one step closer to making the team," Hall said. "It's just a race now."

Never afraid to speak his mind, Hall also lashed out at track star Marion Jones, calling for her to be banned because of doping allegations. Jones has denied using drugs and has not been charged by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

"I hate that her defense is 'I never tested positive,'" Hall said. "It's an undetectable steroid. It's still a steroid. She still cheated. She should be banned for life. Everyone she has ever associated with has cheated."

Ed Moses was trying desperately to make one more Olympic swim team. The winner of gold and silver medals in Sydney, he is clearly not at top form for the trials, having flopped badly in the 100 breaststroke.

His last chance to make the team is the 200 breast, but he was just fifth-fastest in the semis at 2:15.00. Brendan Hansen, who set a world record in winning the 100 breast, was easily the fastest at 2:10.76.

"He's on fire right now," Moses said. "I've just got to swim my own race and do whatever it takes to make the team."

Moses, who raised the specter of food poisoning after the 100, now says he is being treated with medication for a breathing problem that has left him at just 50-60 percent capacity.

"It's little painful, but I'm not going to give up," he said.

Josh Davis can. The winner of three gold medals at the 1996 Atlanta Games, he failed to make the team after a dismal showing in the 100 free.

Davis, 31, managed only the 30th-fastest time of the preliminaries - more than 3 seconds slower than Lezak.

"I did terrible," said Davis, who also won two relay silver medals at Sydney. "It's just not happening. Every four years you want to be on. It's not there."

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