Sunday, August 15, 2004

Phelps debut good as gold

Begins his quest for record medal haul by breaking own world record in 400 IM

By Paul Newberry
The Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece - Michael 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.

Michael Phelps, right, celebrates with USA teammate Erik Vendt after winning gold in the 400 meter individual medley. Vendt took the silver.
(AP photo)
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 31/2 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."

Thorpe almost missed the 400 free - his best event - when he inexplicably fell off the starting block at the Australian trials, earning an automatic disqualification. But he got in when teammate Craig Stevens gave up his spot.

The two are rooming together at the Olympic Village. "I'm glad I'll be able to share it with one of my friends," Thorpe said.

The Thorpedo barely held off another countryman, Grant Hackett, to win in 3:43.10. American Klete Keller took bronze for the second straight Olympics, setting an American record of 3:44.11.

"I didn't realize how much this event meant to me," said Thorpe, who fought back tears after touching the wall. "I am more excited now that it is off my shoulders."

Thompson, 31, had a chance for her ninth gold when she dove into the water for the anchor leg with a lead of nearly four-tenths of a second.

But the greatest relay swimmer in U.S. history couldn't hold it. Jodie Henry passed Thompson after they made the final turn nearly in unison, touching the wall in 3:35.94 to break the world record of 3:36.00 set by Germany two years ago.

The winning team included Alice Mills, Lisbeth Lenton and Petria Thomas, but it was Henry who did the bulk of the work. She swam nearly a second faster than Thompson with a stunning time of 52.95 for the final 100.

Thompson swam her 100 in 53.77 - best of the American swimmers and enough to give the team a national record of 3:36.39. The Netherlands took bronze in 3:37.59.

"We were so close," Thompson said. "We set a new American record. I think that's pretty cool."

In the night's other final, Yana Klochkova of Ukraine won her second straight 400 individual medley at the Olympics, holding off American Kaitlin Sandeno by just the length of a hand.

Klochkova became the first two-time winner of the women's 400 IM in Olympic history. The world-record holder took gold in 4:34.83 - just 12-hundredths of a second ahead of Sandeno.

Sandeno still set an American record, while Georgina Bardach of Argentina claimed the bronze in 4:37.51.

"It's my best time by 5 1/2 seconds," Sandeno said. "I wasn't even upset that I got outpunched."

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.

The American women have won the last three 400 free relays at the Olympics - each time with Thompson swimming the anchor leg. It didn't work this time, with Thompson failing to hold the lead given to her by Kara Lynn Joyce, Natalie Coughlin and Amanda Weir.

Thompson still managed to tie the record for most career swimming medals. She's now got 11, equaling the mark already shared by Spitz, Matt Biondi and Carl Osburn.

The only knock on Thompson is that most of those medals have come in relays. Her only individual prizes are silver and bronze, both in the 100 freestyle.

She has a couple of chances to erase that blemish in Athens, earning spots in the 50 free and 100 butterfly. But she's not considered a strong medal contender in either.

Thompson said she'll be satisfied with her career, no matter how this final Olympics turns out.

"There's more to life," she said, "than swimming."

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