White-hot Olympic spotlight to burn on Phelps

/ Source: Associated Press Sports

Michael Phelps' epic pursuit of Mark Spitz. The ongoing rivalry between the American and Australian women. Prime-time television coverage back in America. Those elements add up to swimming making quite a splash at the Beijing Olympics.

With Phelps, Katie Hoff and self-described "old lady'' Dara Torres leading the way, the pool promises to be the hottest ticket at the games.

Fittingly, Phelps' second attempt at surpassing Spitz will take place in one of Beijing's coolest Olympic venues — the Water Cube.

Known officially as the National Aquatics Center, the Water Cube's design and its translucent, blue-toned outside skin make it look like a cube of bubbles or "bubble wrap.''

The outside skin is made of Teflon-like material. Composed of two layers, it's separated by an interior passage that allows the building, which seats 17,000, to breathe like a greenhouse.

A worthy successor
Four years ago in Athens, Phelps tied the record for medals at one Olympics with six golds and two bronzes. The only thing that eluded him: Spitz's record of seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Games.

"You guys talk about that,'' Phelps told reporters. "I just get in the water and do what I love to do, and that's compete.''

And he'll be doing it in prime-time.

The swimming finals will be held in the morning, a switch made at the request of NBC so the races can be shown live at night in the States.

Spitz endorsed Phelps at the recent U.S. trials as a worthy successor, suggesting that after 36 years, it's time for someone else to take his mantle.

Phelps is now 23, making it highly probable that this games will be his final run at becoming the greatest Olympian of all time. In 2012, his body will be perhaps less likely to recover as easily from swimming multiple events over eight days. In Beijing, Phelps will swim in five individual events and all three relays.

And he's giving every indication he'll top his Athens performance after breaking world records in the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys at the U.S. trials.

"He's a performer,'' U.S. head coach and general manager Mark Schubert said. "As the stage gets bigger, his performances get better.''

Phelps' grueling program opens with the 400 IM, a race requiring all four strokes. Awaiting him in both IMs is teammate Ryan Lochte.

If Phelps equals or breaks Spitz's record, he will earn a $1 million bonus from his swimsuit sponsor.

Of course, Phelps won't be a one-man show in Beijing.

When he's not in the pool, his U.S. teammates will be strong medal contenders in their own right.

Hoff will be nearly as busy as the guy she considers her pseudo older brother. The 19-year-old from the same North Baltimore club that produced Phelps earned a spot in five individual races and at least one relay. She set the world record in the 400 IM at the U.S. trials.

"If I could overall do very well, then I'll be happy,'' Hoff said. "To me that would be being seen as an overall very strong competitor and consistent throughout many events. That would be really cool.''

Four years ago, Hoff made her Olympic debut and was so unnerved that she vomited on the pool deck. She didn't make the 400 IM final and finished seventh in the 200 IM; this time, she could win both.

"I wasn't mentally prepared for that,'' she said. "The second time around is so much easier because you have an idea of how things are. Having experience gives me a huge advantage.

"I still get nervous, but there's just more confidence there to back me up. I can't control my competitors, but if I have great swims, then I should do pretty well.''

Natalie Coughlin, a five-time medalist in Athens, will swim three individual events, as will Lochte and Peter Vanderkaay, Phelps' training partner in Ann Arbor, Mich. Aaron Peirsol goes for a second consecutive Olympic sweep of the backstroke events.

At 41, Torres could steal some of Phelps' thunder.

She'll go for her 11th career medal in the 50 freestyle, and she could potentially swim two relays in her record fifth Olympics. She'll be the oldest American ever to swim at the games, after two long retirements and the birth of her first child.

"I want a medal,'' she said.

The United States wants to top its showing from Athens, where the team won 12 golds and 28 medals overall. The Americans set nine world records at their recent trials, where swimmers wearing Speedo's LZR Racer suit dominated.

"We have a very strong men's team, but we have to go to the Olympics and perform,'' Schubert said. "On the women's side, the Australians are unquestionably the No. 1 team in the world. We are kind of the underdogs. It will give our women's team a rallying cry.''

Aussie Libby Trickett, who previously competed under her maiden name of Lenton, will be a gold-medal favorite to sweep the sprint races. She'll take on Torres in the 50 free, while Coughlin awaits in the 100 free.

Trickett's teammate, Leisel Jones, figures to rule the women's breaststroke events, while the Aussie women will be strong in the relays, having won the 400 free and 400 medley in Athens.

Coughlin will defend her gold medal in the 100 backstroke against Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe, who also is a threat in the 200 back against newly minted world recordholder Margaret Hoezler of the United States.

Australia's distance king, Grant Hackett, goes for his third consecutive Olympic title in the 1,500 free. Kosuke Kitajima of Japan tries to repeat his breaststroke sweep from four years ago.

France brings a strong men's team into Beijing, featuring sprinters Amaury Leveaux and Alain Bernard and breaststroker Hugues Duboscq. The French could give Phelps and his teammates a tough time in the 400 free relay.

Besides the Americans, Aussies and French, the Japanese, Germans, Russians and Italians are medal contenders during the Aug. 9-17 swimming competition.

Away from the Water Cube, open water swimming makes its Olympic debut with men's and women's 10-kilomter races in a rowing basin.

Defending world champions Larisa Ilchenko of Russia and Thomas Lurz of Germany will be gold-medal favorites.