LONG BEACH, Calif. - The pool was supposed to be choppy and slow, stirred by swirling breezes blowing off Long Beach Harbor. With an additional five events in front of him, might Michael Phelps conserve energy on opening night of the U.S. Olympic swimming trials?
Phelps began the meat of the Olympic year the way he ended 2003's championship season, and if this summer goes as well as the last one, then Eminen's "Till I Collapse" might become the anthem of the 2004 Games.
Last night Phelps owned the 400-meter individual medley at the trials, where he lowered his own world record to 4 minutes, 8.41 seconds. It began a giddy night for the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, which enjoyed a double dip courtesy of Katie Hoff, who won the women's 400 IM.
"I'm very happy with how I swam; it's always good to do a best time," said Phelps, who then dropped his nonchalant pose. "It's a relief, because the Olympic trials are more stressful than the Games themselves."
The trials' schedule symbolized the sport's pecking order. The 400 IM was the first final contested, and it was fitting that his name was the first placed on the American roster that will swim in the Athens Olympics.
Phelps is on a mission, to swim more events and win more gold medals at the Olympics than anyone ever before.
For all that he had accomplished in the sport prior to his 19th birthday last week, Phelps had never won a race at the trials before yesterday. He went to the 2000 Olympics as the trials runner-up in the 200-meter butterfly, but had to wait a night for his place on the squad to be acknowledged.
The coronation came early, and easily.
Phelps had an empty tank a year ago, when his 13th and final race at the world championships lowered his own world record in the 400 IM to 4:09.09. No other man has ever gone under 4:11, and Phelps arrived in Long Beach considerably fresher, cleanly shaven and with a Tuesday night haircut covered by an Orioles cap.
Pushed by Ryan Lochte in the morning's preliminaries, Phelps shook his head at an NBC camera. In the evening, he traded trunks for jammers, then donned the portable CD player headphones. Just as it was last summer in Barcelona, when he became the first swimmer to establish world records in different events on the same day and the first to notch five in one meet, his soundtrack is Eminen.
His chief international rival, Ian Thorpe, momentarily false-started his way out of his signature event at the Australian trials. Phelps said that wasn't on his mind during a cautious start, which rapidly turned into a lead. Phelps moved ahead of his world-record pace on the backstroke, the second leg, and won by several body lengths.
"He was just cruising," coach Bob Bowman said. "I don't think it was a stressful night for him, emotionally. He wasn't fighting for his life."
Erik Vendt, who pushed Phelps to his first world record in the event two years ago, got the second Olympic berth, nearly six seconds behind Phelps.
"Two years ago, we were both under the world record," Vendt said. "I helped on that one. I didn't help on this one."
Phelps pumped his left fist afterward, and said it wasn't that easy.
"I don't know if I was exactly coasting," Phelps said. "Maybe it looked effortless, but it didn't feel effortless. ... It's hard to hold something back."
How hard is the challenge Phelps has set for himself at the trials?
The 400 IM field didn't include Kevin Clements, Phelps' training partner, who came to Long Beach with one of the top five seed times but scratched to focus on a getting at least a relay berth in the 200-meter freestyle.
Last night wasn't perfect for Phelps, as Klete Keller took away his American record in the 400 freestyle, but nothing fazes the young man from Rodgers Forge, who grows as a marketable commodity by the day.
On Saturday, Phelps figures to finally shake hands with Mark Spitz, as the man who set the bar with seven gold medals in the 1972 Olympics will give the award to the winner of the 200-meter butterfly.
Next Wednesday, he'll pose with supermodel Cindy Crawford in a promotional appearance for one of their shared corporate sponsors.
He'll be recovering from the last of his 17 races here, and re-tuning for Athens.
What was the last word on the 12th world record of his career?
"There are a few things," Phelps said, "I can fix."
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