Phelps will get his best chance at Spitz's record

He will join the 400-meter freestyle relay in the final.
ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- Michael Phelps got his first Olympic win -- before the Athens Games even began.
In a move that ticked off sprint star Gary Hall Jr. but should give Phelps his best chance to break Mark Spitz's record, the U.S. coaching staff tentatively reserved a spot for their most touted swimmer in the final of the 400-meter freestyle relay.
Swimming is perhaps the most highly anticipated sport at the Athens Games, beginning today with Phelps as an overwhelming favorite to win his first gold medal in the 400 individual medley. He's the world record holder, going nearly four seconds faster than anyone else in the world this year.
"Obviously, he's going to win multiple gold medals," American back-stroker Lenny Krayzelburg said. "There's no question about that. It's just a matter of how many."
Other prospects
Others to watch on Day 1: Australian mega-star Ian Thorpe leading the way in the 400 freestyle; Jenny Thompson going for her record-tying ninth gold medal in the women's 400 free relay; and 15-year-old Katie Hoff challenging defending Olympic champ Yana Klochkova in the women's 400 individual medley.
But the focus will be on Phelps, who has his sights on Spitz's record of seven gold medals in one games, set back in 1972 at Munich.
While Phelps insists his main goal is one gold medal, he clearly has much loftier aims. Warming up for his grueling schedule, Phelps qualified in a record six individual events at the Olympic trials last month (he dropped one for competitive reasons).
Phelps also made it clear he wanted to swim all three relays at Athens, but he skipped the 100 free that is normally used to determine the pool of swimmers for the 400 relay.
Coaches impressed
Not to worry. The American coaches were suitably impressed by Phelps' time at a February meet, which would have been good enough for second at the trials.
After a workout Friday, Hall revealed that the coveted spots in the evening final would go to Jason Lezak, Ian Crocker and Phelps -- plus a slot to be determined early today.
"There were no exceptions for anyone else," Hall grumbled. "No one qualified for the Olympic team in February except Michael Phelps."
There is one scenario that could knock Phelps out of the relay final. The coaches told Hall and the other preliminary swimmers -- Nate Dusing, Neil Walker and Gabe Woodward -- that if two of them swam faster than 48.4 seconds in the morning, both would get spots in the final at the expense of Phelps.
That seems unlikely. Hall has a personal best of 48.81. Walker's top time is 48.55. Neither Woodward nor Dusing has ever broken 49 seconds.
If form holds, only the top swimmer in the morning is likely to join the evening triumvirate. That would leave Phelps with eight chances to tie or beat Spitz's record.
Phelps earned consideration for the relay team with a time of 49.05 at the Spring Nationals -- seventh-fastest in the world this year. Even so, Hall was a little perturbed by the whole situation, saying Phelps was getting special treatment.
Hall said U.S. men's coach Eddie Reese was under intense pressure to get Phelps into as many races as possible since he's being hyped as potentially the biggest star in Athens.
"If the rules applied to everyone, I would understand," Hall said. "I think it's unfair to put the pressure of Michael Phelps' seven-gold-medal hunt on the shoulders of the coach. There's so much pressure on him from USA Swimming and the media."
Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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