Image: Katie Hoff
Mark Dadswell  /  Getty Images file
Katie Hoff of the United States is the favorite to win gold in the 400-meter individual medley, but 15-year-old American Elizabeth Beisel could present a challenge.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/9/2008 12:01:57 PM ET 2008-08-09T16:01:57
OPINION

Things went swimmingly in the Water Cube for an American team that is being counted on to build an early lead for the United States in the medal standings. And it set up some great head-to-head medal battles with a rising crop of Chinese swimmers who have inspired roars from the home crowd.

The headlines may all be about Michael Phelps, but five other Americans, plus the women’s 4x100 freestyle relay, all put themselves into medal contention on opening night in the iconic swim stadium.

Katie Hoff, who is going for six medals on the women’s side of the meet, swam a powerful heat, only to discover a big challenge from teammate Elizabeth Beisel, who finished first overall in the 400-meter individual medley. Beisel is just 15 and the youngest of the 596 athletes the United States entered in the Games. And her performance puts the American women in position to take first and second in that race.

Hoff was in the same position four years ago that Beisel is in this year — a 15-year-old swimming with the big girls. Hoff was overcome by nerves in Athens, famously blowing lunch on the pool deck after a disappointing performance in one of her heats.

Hoff has had to repeatedly answer questions about her ability to overcome her nerves this year, and she had been patiently repeating her mantra: she’s four years older and a world record holder; she’s not going to choke.

Now 19, Hoff backed up her words, and now the question becomes whether she can beat Beisel and win the gold that was all but handed to her before the Games began.

Larsen Jensen qualified first in the qualifying heats of the 400-meter freestyle. Ryan Lochte, considered the swimmer with the best chance to beat Phelps in the 400 IM, qualified fourth for the finals. That’s a bit disappointing, but he remains a strong medal contender.

In addition, Christine Magnuson and Elaine Breeden will take the second- and fourth-fastest qualifying times into the semifinals of the women’s 100 butterfly.

Finally, the U.S. women’s 4x100 freestyle relay qualified third for the final, behind China and Germany, but in the finals, the Americans will substitute their two greatest sprinters, 41-year-old Dara Torres and Natalie Coughlin, onto the team, making them the squad to beat.

Slideshow: Emotional moments Historically, the biggest challenges to the United States in the pool have come from Australia and sometimes Germany and the Netherlands. But this year, the Chinese, who have poured themselves into every Olympic sport in a total effort to win the medal race, have already served notice that they’re not going to be spectators in swimming.

The performance of the women’s relay served notice that the Chinese have depth in their talent pool.

In the women’s 100 butterfly, which has one more round of heats, Zhou Yafei tied Magnuson for second-fastest behind Aussie Jess Schipper. And in the 400 men’s freestyle, Jensen is going to be pushed by Zhang Lin of China, who won his heat and qualified second.

It’s asking a lot for China to actually win any of these races, but they will collect some medals in a sport they’ve had little success in before this year. It’s another reason why the Americans have to take advantage of all their chances in the pool if they want to help the United States finish atop the medal standings when the torch is finally snuffed.

Phelps is going to help that total — he may not win eight gold medals, but he will win eight total medals, which will move him into the debate about who is the greatest Olympian of all time. But it’s going to be the rest of the team that will make the real difference.

On Saturday night, with a home crowd making enough noise to add several blisters to the Water Cube and with the rest of the world doing all it could to dethrone them, the Americans did what they had to do. They showed they can swim under pressure and also in the shadow of the mighty Phelps.

But these were the preliminaries. In a few more hours, it will be for the medal stand.

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