At first, swimmer Michael Phelps' quest to break Mark Spitz's record of seven golds in one Olympics seemed audacious, if not absurd.
Now, it seems improbable, if not impossible.
Yet there was Phelps flashing a toothy smile moments after losing for the second time at the U.S. trials, saying he just might be able to tweak his starts and turns enough over the next month to pull off the boldest challenge in Olympic swimming history.
Rivals have learned not to doubt him.
Two weeks past his 19th birthday, Phelps already has done something no American swimmer ever had: qualify for six individual Olympic races. If dog paddling were an event, he would have gone for that, too.
He won four of those six, racing 17 times in a week. The two teammates who edged him in finals Aaron Peirsol in the 200 backstroke, Ian Crocker in the 100 butterfly did it with world-record times.
''It really puts things in perspective,'' Phelps said, referring to the pressure-packed week. ''I wouldn't say it's harder than I thought, but it's definitely going to be a very challenging thing to do.''
His face red from sunburn, except for the outlines of white from his goggles and swim cap, Phelps was able to smile after the loss Tuesday night to Crocker simply out of relief that the week was over.
Phelps seemed amused and a bit bewildered by all the attention. The rap-loving kid from suburban Baltimore was doing only what felt natural to him.
''Coming into this was a pretty stressful time,'' Phelps said. ''I remember sitting up here the very first day before the meet started, thinking this is going to be a pretty big event and I'm already stressing out. I had to hide it a little bit.
''I'm relieved it's over. Now it's time to switch modes and go into training mode.''
On Wednesday, Phelps scaled down his plan to swim up to nine events in Athens, including three relays, saying he would scratch the 200 backstroke. No small factor in the decision is that if Phelps matches or breaks Spitz's record gold haul at the 1972 Munich games, he will win a $1 million bonus from his swimsuit sponsor, Speedo.
''We decided to save the backstroke for another opportunity sometime down the road,'' he said as he sat next to model Cindy Crawford during an appearance for the latest of his many sponsors, Omega watches. ''We wanted to do the best program we felt the most confident with.''
His coach, Bob Bowman, said that after watching him in the trials they had to consider the physical strain of doing that program plus two or three relays in Athens.
''We don't want to spread him so thin that he compromises his chances to win events that I think he's capable of winning by trying to do too much,'' Bowman said.
That would be the 200 and 400 individual medleys, the 200 butterfly, and the 400 medley relay. Phelps said he relished the chance to go against world-record holder Ian Thorpe of Australia and Olympic champion Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands in the 200 freestyle. Phelps also will swim the 100 butterfly, and hopes to be part of the 400 freestyle relay and 800 medley relay.
Even without the 200 backstroke, Phelps could race up to 21 times in eight days, starting Aug. 14, though he would probably swim in either the heats or the finals, but not both, of the three relays.
He has no margin of error to beat Spitz's record, needing a gold in every race he enters.
''I feel fairly confident swimming back-to-back events,'' Phelps said. ''I've been doing that all my life. It gets me motivated from one event to the next.''
In a sport of specialists, Phelps' specialty is his versatility. He is the big fish of American swimming, 6-feet-4, 195 pounds, seemingly able to do anything in a pool. He exudes confidence, not cockiness, going for the golds, not guaranteeing them.
The shame would come if he were labeled a failure if he fell short of Spitz's mark. There is nobility in trying, no disgrace in winning ''only'' three, four or five golds.
''Michael is a phenomenal swimmer and he's trying to do something really special,'' Crocker said. ''He is attracting attention to this sport we haven't had in a long time and it's a healthy thing.''
In a poignant scene last week, Phelps met Spitz for the first time after winning the 200 butterfly for his third individual title at the trials. Wearing sunglasses and looking fit, Spitz accepted an ovation from the crowd of about 10,000, then shook hands with Phelps.
Unlike Tiger Woods, who posted Jack Nicklaus' records on his bedroom wall growing up and vowed to break them all, Phelps was barely aware of Spitz until recently. Only when Phelps announced plans to go for at least seven golds did he start to get an inkling of how formidable a swimmer Spitz had been.
Not only did Spitz win his golden seven, he set world records in each of his races the 100 and 200 freestyle, the 100 and 200 butterfly, and three relay races.
Now as they stood together, Phelps leaned forward for a quick, private conversation at the award ceremony. Spitz draped the medal around Phelps' neck, then joined him on the podium, raised Phelps' right arm in the air and pointed at him. The message was clear: Phelps was Spitz's heir apparent and had his support.
''I think he really has a chance to do this,'' Spitz said. ''That's one of the things I told him.''
Phelps called it ''an honor.''
''Having one of the best swimmers of all time up there, shaking your hand, putting your hand up in the air and saying he's behind you 100 percent, that's motivation right there,'' he said.
Spitz said he's just as curious and fascinated as everyone else about how Phelps will go about pursuing the record, with more heats to race in than there were in 1972.
''It's a great opportunity for swimming,'' Spitz said. ''It's a great opportunity for the Olympics, and it's a great opportunity for all of us to have something to talk about, watch and focus on.''
Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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