Phelps breaks world record at Olympic trials

Posted: Thursday, July 08, 2004

LONG BEACH, Calif. Look out, Mark Spitz. Michael Phelps has you in his sights.

Phelps began his quest to break one of sport's most hallowed records with an electrifying performance a world record in the 400-meter individual medley at the U.S. Olympic trials Wednesday night.

Not a bad way to show he's serious about bettering Spitz's seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Games.

''I'm very happy with the way I swam,'' said the 19-year-old Phelps, who broke his own record with a time of 4 minutes, 8.41 seconds. ''It's always my goal going into a meet to do my best time.''

Phelps set the previous record of 4:09.09 at last year's world championship in Barcelona, where he became the first swimmer in history to break five world records in one meet.

With that performance, it was clear Phelps had the potential to break Spitz's record. He entered six individual events at the eight-day trials, a daunting schedule in this increasingly specialized sport.

But Phelps showed on Day 1 that he's up to the task. He was off record pace through his first leg, the butterfly, but made up for it in the backstroke. He even had a chance to sneak a glimpse at the scoreboard, his first hint that a new mark was within reach.

''If there's a clock there, I'm going to look,'' Phelps said.

Sensing history, the crowd began chanting ''Go! Go! Go!'' each time he poked his head above water during the breaststroke. Finally, everyone rose to their feet as he finished things off in the freestyle.

When Phelps touched the wall, he quickly jerked his head around to find the scoreboard. When he saw the record, he pumped his left fist and wagged a finger.

''I'm here,'' he said nonchalantly. ''I might as well try to swim my best.''

The trials should be a good indicator for Athens, where Phelps also is likely to swim in two or three relays. Spitz won his seven golds in four individual events and three relays.

Phelps was relieved to make it through the first event in Long Beach, where the U.S. team is being determined at a temporary pool set up near the picturesque harbor.

''The trials are probably more stressful than the Olympic finals,'' Phelps said.

His coach, Bob Bowman, said Phelps wanted to send a message in his first event: The attempt to break Spitz's record is feasible.

''He knows he's on the right track,'' Bowman said. ''But there's a long way to go and a lot of good swimmers in the way.''

The two individual medleys, which comprise all four strokes, seem the safest bets for Olympic gold. Phelps also holds the world record in the 200, where he has the five fastest times in history.

Erik Vendt finished second to Phelps in the 400 IM to likely claim a spot on the Olympic team. He knew all along that he had little chance of earning the top position.

''For me, getting second and making the team is just as good as winning,'' said Vendt, who finished more than 5 1/2 seconds behind at 4:14.09.

Two other finals were held Wednesday evening impressive performances in their own right, but overshadowed by Phelps' record.

Klete Keller won the 400 freestyle with an American record of 3:44.19, more than 2 seconds ahead of Phelps' mark set last August. Larsen Jensen settled for second at 3:46.56 also lower than the previous record.

''I was more nervous than I've ever been,'' said Keller, who won a bronze medal in the same event at Sydney four years ago. ''I almost felt like I was going to cry before the start. I don't know why. I just remembered what my coach said, 'You don't have to feel good to swim fast.'''

Keller has his work cut out for him in Athens. He was still more than 4 seconds slower than Australian star Ian Thorpe, who has the eight fastest times in history.

''I'm just going to enjoy this and keep working hard,'' Keller said. ''Maybe I'll see if I can go a little faster.''

In the women's 400 medley, 15-year-old Katie Hoff swam the second-fastest time in American history, 4:37.67. She tired a bit on the final freestyle leg, just missing Summer Sanders' 12-year-old national record of 4:37.58.

Kaitlin Sandeno, an Olympic medalist and the fastest swimmer in the morning preliminaries, settled for second at 4:40.39.

Hoff is the same age as Phelps was during his first Olympics in Sydney and she swims for the same club, North Baltimore.

''I still can't believe it,'' she said, giggling. ''It's going to be a crazy experience'' in Athens.

Phelps swam in the first event of the trials, diving into the water for the prelims before 9:30 a.m. local time. That made for an early day he got up at 6:15, had breakfast at 6:30 and headed to the pool to begin warming up.

After the prelims, Phelps headed back to his hotel to grab a sandwich and get in a nap. He returned to the pool to become the first swimmer to claim a spot on the U.S. Olympic team which was only appropriate.

Phelps, who finished fifth in his only event at Sydney, has matured into the world's most dominant all-around swimmer over the last four years. Now, he will attempt to knock off Spitz.

In addition to the two medley events, Phelps has entered in the 100 and 200 butterfly, the 200 freestyle and the 200 backstroke.

Also Wednesday, three-time Olympian Jenny Thompson earned a spot in Thursday's 100 butterfly final with the fifth-fastest time of the semis, 59.17. She was slower in the morning, the time of 1:00.17 more than 2 1/2 seconds off her personal best.

''It was my get-out-the-nerves swim,'' said Thompson, who had won a record 10 Olympic medals but never an individual gold. ''It wasn't that great a time for me, but I look to get better and better.''

Misty Hyman, a gold medalist in the 200 fly at Sydney, also advanced with the sixth-fastest time in the semis, 59.26. Demerae Christianson was the fastest qualifier at 59.01.

In the men's 100 breaststroke semifinals, Brendan Hansen set an American record of 1:00.13, just missing the world mark of 59.78 held by Japan's Kosuke Kitajima.

Ed Moses, who shared the previous U.S. record of 1:00.21 with Hansen, qualified fourth at 1:01.82. The final is Thursday evening.

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