- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 15, 2004

ATHENS — The footage was familiar, the face even more so. As the evening sun slipped behind the Greek flag at the edge of the Olympic Aquatic Center, the stadium Jumbotron flashed a montage: Mark Spitz, tanned and resplendent, winning the second of his record seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Games.

Moments later, the man set to challenge Spitz stepped onto the pool deck. Yoking a towel behind his back, headphones wrapped around his ears, Michael Phelps stood at water’s edge. Waiting.

Omens, signs, portends. Call it what you will. Phelps began his quest to tie or surpass Spitz’s record in auspicious fashion yesterday, winning his and America’s first gold of the Athens Games by breaking his own world record in the 400-meter individual medley.

“One down, six to go,” said Phelps, who posted a record time of 4:08.26 and actually may swim in as many as seven additional events. “This is a dream come true to me. Since I was a little kid, every day I was waking up hoping to win a gold medal.”

One gold. For months, that has been Phelps’ stated goal, repeated to the point of weary cliche. Yet even if the mantra failed to capture the scope of his ambition, that didn’t make it any less true.

Four years ago, the 19-year-old resident of Rodgers Forge, Md., came home empty-handed from the Sydney Games. He was determined to avoid a repeat. During prerace introductions, other swimmers waved and gestured to the crowd; Phelps stared straight ahead, stretching his hamstrings against the starting block, Eminem thumping in his ears.

The previous evening, Phelps skipped the Games’ opening ceremony to rest. He fell asleep watching “Miracle,” a film about the 1980 U.S. men’s hockey team, winners of perhaps the most improbable gold medal in Olympic history. He woke up nervous.

“He was wound a little bit tighter [than usual],” said Bob Bowman, Phelps’ coach at North Baltimore Aquatic Club. “I could tell coming over. Mentally, he knows what he’s up against.”

Phelps led from the gun. Silky smooth in the backstroke. Churning furiously in the butterfly. He made the third and final turn more than two lengths ahead of his closest pursuer, countryman Erik Vendt. The crowd rose to its feet, roaring, sensing history.

After touching the wall, Phelps pulled off his goggles and grinned. He raised an arm, then crossed lanes to embrace his teammate.

“I just saw the big fellow, and I kicked it into high gear,” said Vendt, who also won silver at Sydney. “I could see him celebrate for about 30 seconds. Then he came over and seemed more excited for me. That just shows you what kind of guy he is. A team player.”

Good thing, too. Phelps will need help from what could be the strongest American men’s squad in two decades if he hopes to catch Spitz: He’s slated to swim two relays and is a strong bet to race in a third, the 4-by-100 freestyle.

Of his four remaining individual races, Phelps’ biggest test could come in tomorrow’s 200-meter freestyle final, where he likely will face Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands, a Sydney gold medalist, and Australia’s Ian Thorpe, who has broken the world record in the event six times.

Thorpe won gold in last night’s 400-meter free, edging teammate Grant Hackett.

“One of the things I’ve wanted to do is race Thorpe in a freestyle event before one of us is done,” Phelps said. “It’s pretty much been his race for the last four years.”

All three swimmers will race in tomorrow’s 200-meter qualifying rounds, part of a punishing schedule that has Phelps swimming more than a dozen times over the next week.

On Thursday, Phelps will swim three times in less than 11 hours, with the 100 fly semis coming just 35 minutes after the 200 IM final.

“It’s going to be very challenging to swim back-to-back events in this environment,” Phelps said. “I have my gold medal. Now it’s time to start focusing on the other races.”

When it was over, a smiling Phelps again appeared poolside, this time for the medal ceremony. He was crowned with an olive wreath, a tradition borrowed from the ancient Olympics.

Phelps turned to Vendt, exuberant. The national anthem came warbling over the stadium loudspeakers. Both men blinked back tears.

“I’m still at a loss for words,” Phelps said. “It’s everything I wanted to do, and the day’s finally here. I’ve never been more excited for a race.”

The sun vanished. The anthem played. Phelps stood on the podium, singing softly, wreath pressed to his chest. He was golden at last, his work just beginning.

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