Focused on history

Phelps opens Spitz chase with gold in 400 IM.
Sunday, August 15, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:19 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

ATHENS, Greece — Michael Phelps wasn’t taking any chances.

The night before, he fired up by watching the movie “Miracle.” While on deck at the Olympic pool, he had Eminem’s “’Till I Collapse” blaring in his headphones. Before climbing atop the starting block, he stared down the 50-meter strip of water.

“I was more ready for this,” Phelps said, “than I’ve ever been.”

Now the first gold’s out of the way.

He is an Olympic champion, just like Mark Spitz.

Phelps began his quest to surpass Spitz’s 1972 record haul of seven gold medals with a dominating performance in the 400-meter individual medley, breaking his world record Saturday and claiming the first U.S. gold medal of the Athens Games.

It was a rousing start to the much-anticipated Olympic swim meet.

Before the night was done, Ian Thorpe won his second straight gold in the 400 freestyle, a race he got into only through the generosity of an Australian teammate, and Jenny Thompson was denied her record-tying ninth gold medal when she gave up the lead to Australia on the final leg of the 400 free relay.

“It was a change of pace for me to be passed by someone,” Thompson said. “It’s usually the other way around.”

The Aussies got the upper hand in their spirited swim rivalry with the Americans, winning two of the night’s four races. The powerful U.S. team claimed five medals, more than any other country on the first of eight days at the sweltering outdoor pool.

Phelps and teammate Erik Vendt got things started with a 1-2 finish in the 400 individual medley. Phelps touched the wall in 4 minutes, 8.26 seconds, and Vendt was more than 3 1/2 seconds behind but good enough for silver at 4:11.81.

Phelps is only getting warmed up. He will likely swim in eight events, giving him a chance to break Spitz’s record at the Munich Games.

So far, Phelps is following the script of the greatest swimmer in Olympic history: All seven of Spitz’s wins were in record time.

“I’m a little bit less nervous,” Phelps said. “I’ve got one off my shoulders and can relax a little bit.”

Thorpe almost missed the 400 free, his best event, when he inexplicably fell off the starting block at the Australian trials, earning an automatic disqualification. He got in when teammate Craig Stevens gave up his spot.

They are rooming together at the Olympic Village.

“I’m glad I’ll be able to share it with one of my friends,” Thorpe said.

Thorpe barely held off another countryman, Grant Hackett, to win in 3:43.10. American Klete Keller took bronze for the second straight Olympics, setting an American record of 3:44.11.

“I didn’t realize how much this event meant to me,” Thorpe said. “I am more excited now that it is off my shoulders.”

Thompson, 31, had a chance for her ninth gold when she dived into the water for the anchor leg with a lead of nearly four-tenths of a second.

The greatest relay swimmer in U.S. history couldn’t hold it. Jodie Henry passed Thompson after they made the final turn nearly in unison, touching the wall in 3:35.94 to break the world record of 3:36.00 Germany set two years ago.

The winning team included Alice Mills, Lisbeth Lenton and Petria Thomas, but Henry did the bulk of the work. She swam nearly a second faster than Thompson with a stunning time of 52.95 for the final 100.

Thompson swam her 100 in 53.77, best of the American swimmers and enough to give the team a national record of 3:36.39. The Netherlands took bronze in 3:37.59.

“We were so close,” Thompson said. “We set a new American record. I think that’s pretty cool.”

Phelps was clearly focused as he strolled on deck with a towel around his neck, using it to wipe down the starting block. He stripped off his warm-up suit, took off his headphones and didn’t even look up when his name was called.

“He seemed like he was pretty intense,” said Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman. “Mentally, he knows what he’s up against.”

The first gold was easy enough. Phelps had a body-length lead after the butterfly, stretched it to more than three seconds during the backstroke and cruised to victory in the breaststroke and freestyle.

His only challenger was the clock. After touching the wall, Phelps turned quickly toward the scoreboard to see his time, 0.15 better than the record he set last month at the U.S. Olympic trials.

After a moment of apparent disbelief, he swam across a couple of lane ropes to give Vendt a hug.

“We have one main goal, and that’s to emerge as the most dominant Olympic men’s team in history,” Vendt said. “When he saw I got second, it seemed he was more excited about that than his own race. It just shows the kind of guy Michael is. He’s a team player.”

Phelps said all along one gold would make him happy. He seemed to mean it as he strolled around the deck, proudly holding up his medal as he posed for photographers.

“My goal is right here,” he said. “I’m perfectly happy. Coming in, I said I wanted one gold medal, and now I have one gold medal.”

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