Archive for Friday, July 16, 2004

U.S. swimmers look strong again in Olympic pool

July 16, 2004


— With fireworks exploding above their heads, America's Olympic swimmers took one last stroll around the pool.

There were plenty of familiar Olympic faces. Gary Hall Jr. Jenny Thompson. Lenny Krayzelburg. Amanda Beard.

And plenty of new ones. Brendan Hansen. Natalie Coughlin. Katie Hoff. Tara and Dana Kirk.

They all should have a grand time in Athens.

The Olympic swimming trials, which ended Wednesday, confirmed what everyone already suspected -- the United States has the strongest, deepest group of swimmers in the world. This is hardly a one-man team.

Sure, Michael Phelps received much of the attention. Rightfully so -- he's setting off to the Olympics with hopes of tying or breaking Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals.

But Phelps should have plenty of help in Athens. During the course of the eight-day trials, six world records fell. Hansen set two of them in the breaststroke. Aaron Peirsol and Ian Crocker defeated Phelps with record-breaking performances. Phelps established one new mark during his grueling week. So did Beard, heading off to her third Olympics in top form.

The men's team, in particular, appears to be downright loaded. Phelps, Hansen, Peirsol, Crocker and Hall are strong contenders for gold.

"This team could be strongest men's team since 1976," predicted Texas coach Eddie Reese, who will direct the men in Athens.

For the record, that 1976 team won 12 of 13 golds.

In today's world, such a performance seems unlikely. The Australians, led by Ian Thorpe, have assembled another imposing team. Dutch standouts Pieter van den Hoogenband and Inge de Bruijn are medal contenders again. The Japanese, Russians and Italians should be in the mix.

But the Americans expect to approach -- if not exceed -- their remarkable showing in Sydney four years ago: 14 golds, 33 medals overall.

Phelps should give the Americans a good start on matching that total all by himself. He became the first U.S. swimmer to qualify for six individual Olympic events, and he'll swim five of them in Athens -- another first. If he takes a spot on all three relays, Spitz's record will be vulnerable.

Phelps, the 19-year-old phenom from Baltimore, is the overwhelming favorite in three individual events, the 200-meter butterfly and 200 and 400 individual medley. He's the leading challenger to Crocker in the 100 fly. The 200 freestyle appears to be a reach, but Phelps was determined to have a spot in what should be the most glamorous events of the Olympics.

It will be the only head-to-head, individual showdown between Phelps and Thorpe, the world record-holder. Oh yeah, there's also van den Hoogenband, the defending Olympic champion, and Australian Grant Hackett.

The women's team will have lower expectations in Athens. Beard was the only female swimmer to break a world record, and Coughlin decided to focu.

In several events, the Americans are far behind the best times in the world.

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