One down, 7 to go for Phelps

August 10, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
Michael Phelps powered to the wall and whipped around to get his time, so eager to see another amazing set of numbers that he bumped his head on the end of the pool. Not that he felt any pain.

With President Bush cheering him on, Phelps dominated his first event of the Beijing Olympics on Sunday morning, crushing his own world record and all hopes of his challengers with a mark of 4 minutes, 3.84 seconds in the 400-meter individual medley. One down, seven to go in Phelps' quest to break Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals.

"I'm not downplaying this race by any means, but I have to put that race behind me," Phelps said. "I have to act like it never happened because I have so many tough races ahead of me."

This was supposed to be one of the toughest, especially after fellow American and good friend Ryan Lochte matched Phelps stroke for stroke at the U.S. Olympic trials just over a month ago. Both went under the previous world record in the 400 IM then, with Phelps touching first in 4:05.25.

But Phelps beat Lochte when it really mattered. Laszlo Cseh of Hungary took the silver in 4:06.16, while Lochte faded to third in 4:08.09 -- more than 4 seconds behind.

"Going into the last 50 and looking to my right and seeing that I was ahead of Ryan and Laszlo, I sort of started smiling," Phelps said.

He didn't even know he bumped his head.

"If I did, I didn't feel it," he said.

After spotting his time, Phelps pumped both arms in the air, and quickly spotted his mother and two sisters in the massive stands at the Water Cube. He then looked the other way, where Bush was waving his American flag, accompanied by the first lady, their daughter Barbara and his father, former President George H.W. Bush.

Phelps smiled, pointed and gave a thumbs-up.

"I looked up and he waved the flag and nodded his head," Phelps said. "That was a pretty cool feeling to have the president say congratulations and have him in the crowd."

Speaking of cool, how about a 41-year-old mom winning a medal?

Dara Torres picked up the 10th one of an Olympic career that just won't end by anchoring the Americans to a second-place finish in the 400 freestyle relay.

She dove in the water too far behind to catch the winning team from the Netherlands, but had no complaints after capping an improbable comeback by climbing the medal stand with three teammates -- all in their 20s and probably younger than the old-fashioned goggles Torres was wearing.

Katie Hoff couldn't match her performance in the 400 IM at the U.S. trials, settling for bronze.

Phelps said this might be his last 400 IM. He's eager to try some new events and ditch a grueling race that combines all four strokes, though coach Bob Bowman may have something to say about that.

"We had a deal. I told Bob that I wanted this to be my last 400 IM. He said I have to end on a record," Phelps said.

"In my opinion, that was my last one."

If so, what a way to go out.

The top three traded the lead over the butterfly and backstroke legs. Cseh got off to a quick start, touching the first wall just ahead of Phelps, and Lochte claimed the lead midway through the back.

Phelps had a slight lead at the 200 mark, and it began turning into a blowout from there.

"Looking and seeing all three of us together pretty much at the 200, I wasn't really comfortable with having that close of a race," Phelps said. "I usually have more of a gap, but it made my breaststroke a lot stronger."

No one was catching Phelps in the freestyle. He stretched his lead and powered to the wall with nearly his entire body in front of the world-record line -- a green marker superimposed on the video screen to show the pace of the previous record.

"The freestyle is just downhill," Phelps said. "The freestyle is all adrenaline."

Added Cseh, "I saw Lochte was going (slower) and I tried to do everything to go better than Phelps, but I don't have enough power for that."

No one does.

On the medal stand, Phelps' eyes watered as the U.S. flag was raised to the rafters. The only glitch came during the playing of the "Star-Spangled Banner," which cut off a few seconds before the end, cracking up Phelps.

Lochte, who thought he could give Phelps a run for the gold, was blown out by the world's greatest swimmer.

"I did everything I could, so that's all I can ask for," Lochte said. "That was amazing. Setting another world record, you can't ask for anything else. That was a great way to start off the meet for USA."

The Bushes met with the U.S. swim team, including Phelps and Larsen Jensen, who won a bronze in the 400 freestyle.

"God what a thrill to cheer for you!" the president told Phelps.

Later, Chinese President Hu Jintao brought up Phelps' performance with Bush before they sat down for closed-door talks at the presidential compound.

"I know you came here from the swimming center and would like to offer you my congratulations on the excellent performance of Mr. Phelps," Hu said.

Phelps wasn't the only swimmer to dazzle on what figures to be another assault on the record book over the nine-day meet.

Stephanie Rice of Australia went out extremely fast and held on at the end to win the women's 400 IM in 4:29.45 -- nearly 2 seconds faster than the world record of 4:31.12 set by Hoff at the U.S. Olympic trials.

"I sort of turned around and thought I saw 4:31 and I was thinking, 'That hurt a lot for a 4:31,"' Rice said. "But when I walked over and saw the 4:29, I thought, 'That's amazing."'

Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe also went under the old mark, but only got the silver for the second-fastest swim in history, 4:29.89. Hoff won the bronze in 4:31.71.

"It was a tough race, but I can't really be mad," said Hoff, who plans to match Phelps by swimming five individual events in Beijing. "I was only like a half-second off my best time, so I'm happy to get my first medal of the Olympics."

She was a frightened 15-year-old when she competed at her first Olympics in Athens, actually throwing up after her first event. She failed to win a medal in either of her two races.

This time, nerves weren't a problem. She simply couldn't keep up with Rice.

"I was trying," Hoff said. "I didn't have it at the end."

The team from Down Under didn't fare as well in the men's 400 freestyle. Park Tae-hwan of South Korea won the gold medal, snapping Australia's dominance of the event at the Olympics.

Park, the current world champion, touched in 3:41.86. Zhang Lin of China earned his country's first swimming medal of the games, claiming silver in 3:42.78. Jensen took the bronze in 3:42.78, his second U.S. record in as many days.

Favored Aussie Grant Hackett, who was in the lead off the blocks, struggled home in sixth. He was second four years ago to countryman Ian Thorpe, who won the second of two straight golds in the event. Hackett will get a chance to make up for it in his best event, the 1,500 free.

The Dutch won the 400 free relay with an Olympic-record time of 3:34.33, beating the old mark of 3:35.94 set four years ago by Australia. The Germans led at the midway point, but Femke Heemskerk and Marleen Veldhuis rallied over the final 200. Inge Dekker and Ranomi Kromowidjojo also swam on the winning team.

Natalie Coughlin, adding to the five medals she won in Athens, took the leadoff leg for the Americans, and was followed by Lacey Nymeyer and Kara Lynn Joyce.

But all eyes were on Torres, the oldest swimmer in U.S. history and an inspiration to middle-agers everywhere with her return to the pool, just two years after having a child.

She swam the second-fastest 100 of anyone, but it wasn't enough to catch Veldhuis. The Americans were second in 3:34.33, while the Australians took bronze in 3:35.05. Swimming in her record fifth Olympics, Torres picked up her 10th medal -- four golds, two silvers and four bronzes.

"Everyone did a great job and we're really happy with silver because I don't think we were even expecting that," said Torres, who climbed from the water with a big smile, waved to the crowd and then joined the rest of the team for a group hug.


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