Thursday, July 15, 2004

Phelps drops 200 backstroke

Still has shot at record gold-medal haul

By Beth Harris
The Associated Press

LONG BEACH, Calif. - Michael Phelps will drop the 200-meter backstroke and swim five individual events at the Athens Olympics, but he should still have a chance to at least equal Mark Spitz's record of seven golds.

"We decided to save the backstroke for another opportunity sometime down the road," he said Wednesday.

"We wanted to do the best program we felt the most confident with."

Phelps finished second to world-record holder Aaron Peirsol in the 200 back at the U.S. Olympic Trials.

Peirsol hasn't lost in the 200 back since his silver-medal performance at the Sydney Games four years ago.

Phelps became the first U.S. swimmer to qualify for six individual events at the trials, but U.S. men's coach Eddie Reese said he wouldn't object to Phelps giving up one.

"A move that is the best for him will benefit all of us," he said.

The 19-year-old Phelps will swim the 100 and 200 butterflys, the 200 and 400 individual medleys and 200 freestyle. He also is likely to be on at least two - and maybe all three - relays.

"We don't want to spread him so thin that he compromises his chances," Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, said.

Phelps announced his Olympic schedule at a promotional appearance with supermodel Cindy Crawford, but he already had informed Reese that the 200 back was out.

"He said it bothered his fly," Reese said.

Last Sunday and Monday, Phelps had four races each day at the Trials - including the preliminaries, semifinals and final of the 200 back, along with the prelims and semis of the 100 fly.

He came back Tuesday evening for the 100 fly final but was beaten by Ian Crocker's world-record swim.

Phelps held the world record in the 100 fly until getting upset by Crocker at last summer's world championships in Barcelona. His rival took the mark even lower at the Trials.

The Trials' schedule mimics the order of races at the Athens Games next month.

"To race Crocker, you're going to have to be in peak condition," Bowman said.

Bryce Hunt was expected to take Phelps' place in the 200 back, after finishing third behind Peirsol and Phelps at the Trials. The 22-year-old from Newburgh, Ind., would be swimming in his first Olympics.

"If that occurs, we'll do well," Reese said. "Bryce is a plus wherever he is."

Phelps will be the overwhelming Olympic favorite in the 200 and 400 individual medleys and 200 fly; he holds the world record in all three events.

Having dropped the 200 back, his chances of gold in the other two individual events are shakier. He must beat Crocker in the 100 fly, and the 200 free features world record-holder Ian Thorpe of Australia and defending Olympic champion Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands.

"One thing I always wanted to do is race Thorpe in a freestyle event," Phelps said. "This is probably the best opportunity for me to swim in probably the fastest 200 free in history. There are a lot of guys who could win the gold."

Phelps is assured of anchoring the 800 free relay, but that's no guarantee of gold - Thorpe and the Aussies won that event at Sydney.

Reese hasn't decided on his lineup for the other two relays, but Phelps is expected to swim at least the prelims of the 400 medley relay. The United States has never lost that event at the Olympics, and everyone who swims it earns a medal.

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