He walked in wearing stereo headphones and left wearing an olive wreath.
Michael Phelps might have regressed 2,800 years in technology, but he took a significant step forward in his quest to match Mark Spitz’s seven Olympic gold medals by winning his first here Saturday night.
The path from zero to seven -- or eight? -- shortened Saturday when Phelps broke his world record in the 400-meter individual medley, winning in 4 minutes 8.26 seconds.
And the emotional wall came tumbling down.
Phelps’ smile looked as big as his massive wingspan when he realized, in rapid succession, that he had won, broken his world record and that an American would be riding shotgun on the victory stand. Erik Vendt, formerly of USC, repeated his performance of the Sydney Olympics, taking second in 4:11.81.
Vendt cut across several lanes to celebrate, and Phelps hoisted Vendt’s arm in the air. Phelps’ longtime coach, Bob Bowman, said he had never seen Phelps so excited.
“I think it means more with him being second,” Phelps said of Vendt. “I saw the time, the world record and I was pumped. I heard him scream, out of my right ear. I looked over and looked up at the scoreboard and went nuts. I flipped out. It was just a dream come true and this is the way to do it.”
Not long afterward, it was time for an Australian celebration as Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett finished one-two in the 400 freestyle. The margin was tight: Thorpe successfully defended his Olympic title in 3:43.10 and Hackett was right behind in 3:43.36. Klete Keller repeated his bronze-medal performance of four years ago, and broke his American record, going 3:44.11.
Thorpe was a bundle of emotion too, and he thanked his close friend, Craig Stevens, for making it possible. Stevens was the man who stepped aside in favor of Thorpe after the Aussie star had false-started the race and been disqualified at the trials in the spring. Thorpe, though, was not pleased with the way he’d won.
“I didn’t swim the race well,” he said. “There’s no two ways about it. It wasn’t the way I intended. I wasn’t on my game.”
The closest race of the night was the women’s 400 individual medley. Yana Klochkova of Ukraine won it -- she’d also won at Sydney four years ago -- in 4:34.83, edging out Kaitlin Sandeno, who finished in 4:34.95, breaking a long-standing American record.
Sandeno, 21, who went to El Toro High and is a member of the Trojan Swim Club, improved her personal best by about 5 1/2 seconds and obliterated Summer Sanders’ American record of 4:37.58 that had stood for more than 12 years.
Katie Hoff, at 15, the youngest swimmer on the U.S. team, had a mini-buzz going after she’d won both individual medleys at the trials last month, but she succumbed to a combination of nerves, heat and international inexperience in the morning preliminaries. She was 10 seconds off her winning time at the trials and lost a chance at reaching the finals, placing 17th in 4:47.49. Then she lost her breakfast, throwing up on the pool deck.
That was one of the rare down notes for the Americans. The U.S. women lost to the world-record setting Australians, who swam 3:35.94 in the 400 freestyle relay, but took second in an American-record 3:36.39.
It was the first loss at the Olympics for the U.S. in that relay since 1988 and featured a rarity -- Jenny Thompson losing a lead in the final leg as Australian Jodie Henry turned in a stunning 52.95 split on the anchor.
The U.S. swimming medal count after Day 1: one gold, three silvers and a bronze. Phelps and Vendt set the tone, almost the way Tom Dolan and Vendt had done in Sydney, going one-two in the 400 IM.
"[At Sydney,] we waited for the second day to get the ball rolling,” Vendt said. “We wanted to get it first-off, first event, first day [here] and we did that. Deja vu. But I was faster this time.”
Afterward, on the podium for the national anthem, Phelps and Vendt had to work out what to do with the traditional olive wreath presented to medalists. The 19-year-old Phelps did with the wreath what he does with his ever-present iPod before he swims, simply taking it off his head. Vendt followed suit and they held them over their hearts as “The Star Spangled Banner” was played.
“With the wreath, during the national anthem, we just wanted to take it off,” Phelps said. “When you’re at a baseball game, you always take your hat off and put it across your heart.”
Phelps drew the line, though, at vocalizing during the anthem.
“I was singing to myself,” Phelps said. “I’m not a very good singer. I didn’t want anybody to hear me.”
He didn’t need to worry. They heard him loud and clear in Athens on Saturday.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Michael Phelps’ planned events:
400 Individual Medley
Best time: 4:08.26
World record: 4:08.26
400 Freestyle Relay
Team best: 3:13.86
World record: 3:13.67
Best time: 1:45.99
World record: 1:44.06
Best time: 1:53.93
World record: 1:53.93
800 Freestyle Relay
Team best: 7:10.26
World record: 7:04.66
200 Individual Medley
Best time: 1:55.94
World record: 1:55.94
World record: 50.76
Team best: 3:31.54
World record: 3:31.54