Fatigue, tough competition await Phelps on his road to eight gold
Because finals are being held in the morning in Beijing, the first session of competition will include only a series of prelims. In his first splash in the water of the Olympics Saturday morning, Phelps lowered his own record with a qualifying time of 4:07.82 as teammate Ryan Lochte, considered to be his biggest threat, came in fourth.
Phelps' quest for eight golds could end with his first race. At the trials in Omaha last month, both he and Lochte went under the world record 4:06.22 he had set while winning the world championships in Melbourne in 2007, with Phelps finishing in 4:05.25 and Lochte trailing in 4:06.08. Both swimmers will be equally fresh for this race, so the balance of their programs won't affect their performances in the 400 IM.
Expect the race to follow a familiar script. As the defending champ in the 100-meter butterfly, Phelps should be in the mid-to-low 55s, while building a lead of nearly a second and a half after the second wall. Turns will be critical in this race, which has seven of them. Lochte's are better, which is why he usually beats Phelps in short-course (25-meter) races that have twice as many turns.
Lochte should eat into a third to half of that during the backstroke leg, though both swimmers should expand their leads on the field. The breaststroke is an improved stroke for both swimmers, but it is still the worst for both. The freestyle leg should be a war of attrition. Lochte may close or take the lead away in the first 50 of the freestyle, but Phelps is stronger over the course of a freestyle race and should close stronger than Lochte.
If Phelps is up at 350, he should be able to win the race. If Lochte is up by half a stroke, the bid for eight should be down to seven.
An hour and 45 minutes after Phelps' first race, he'll swim the heat of the race in which he should qualify easily for semis. He won't have much left in his legs and if 2008 is anything like 2004, he'll be very emotional after his first final. But a casual mid-1:46 will be good enough for first or second seed in the semis.
This is a tighter turnaround for Phelps. The 200 freestyle semis are scheduled to end at 10:19 Beijing time and Phelps will want to swim somewhere in the mid-1:45s to get one of the interior lanes for the final.
An hour later, he'll lead the men into their most challenging relay final, the 4x100-meter freestyle. Phelps has swum the lead-off leg on many of the team's recent relays. The U.S. team has something to prove in this race, after its third-place finish at the Athens Games where
When the U.S. team finished 1.3 seconds ahead of Italy and two seconds ahead of France at the last world championships, the team in the finals was Phelps,
Since Phelps loves relays, he'll still be on a high (or low) from the four by one. This should be an easy get-in, get-out qualifier in the 1:55s. Phelps swam a slow 1:55.85, only third best in the trials during the trials. He has some big races the next morning, so he won't kill himself here.
Phelps put himself on the line by swimming the 200 free in Athens, since Australia's
South Korea's much-improved
Assuming Phelps gets on the medal stand in the 200 free, he'll have a whopping 19 minutes between "home of the brave" and the 200 fly semis. Fortunately, this is another of his dominant races. When fresh, Phelps will swim about 1:54 in the semis, two seconds off his world record, in order to get one of the inside lanes. He may back off that a bit in this race, but should have no problem reaching the finals.
At the world championships in Melbourne last year, Phelps beat the field by an astounding three seconds in setting the world record, 1:52.09. Given his closing strength, Phelps should pull away from a field that includes China's
The relay final is due to start just nine minutes after his ceremony. This was Phelps' favorite race at the Athens' Games, because the U.S. rallied past the favorite Australians. These days, only a false start or DQ should stop the Yanks. The U.S. quartet of Phelps, Lochte,
Phelps will have just one race at night, and should coast through the first of three races in the 200 IM. Look for a time in the 1:59s, four or five seconds off his best, to get him into the next round.
With no finals and only one swim in each session, this is a relatively easy day for Phelps. He and Lochte will try to post good times in the 200 IM semis to get lanes four and five. Look out also for Hungary's
Phelps broke his own world record (1:54.98) with a 1:54.80 at trials. Unlike the 400 IM, Lochte never led the shorter race, and finished .42 behind. Look for the same sort of script here, with Phelps getting as big a lead as possible in the fly, losing portions of it in the backstroke and breaststroke legs and trying to hold off Lochte (and, in the race, Cseh as well) in the free. The wildcard here is the 200 backstroke final Lochte will swim just 25 minutes before the start of this race. Not even Phelps has a turnaround of individual finals races that close together. It makes Lochte's double the most ambitious of the Games and may give Phelps an advantage by taking the stamina away from his rival.
Still, even though Phelps' second race of the night isn't a final, he will also have a killer double. The semis of the 100-meter butterfly are set for two minutes after the awards ceremony for the 200 IM. That means Phelps, with lactic acid still burning in his legs, could stiffen, while standing on a victory podium and won't have the normal amount of time to stretch. Phelps actually broke the world record in this race during the semis at the 2003 world championships, but don't look for that in Beijing. Both men would normally be likely to swim in the mid-51s in the semis, but expect a fresher Crocker to swim a faster time here because he will be fresher.
Crocker and Phelps have combined for the 17-fastest times in history in the 100 butterfly, going into the Olympics, so this should a two-horse race. Serbia's
No other team can throw together elite swimmers in every stroke as the U.S. team can. Barring a disqualification, the U.S. team should win this race easily. Still, this is competition, and sure enough, the U.S. was DQ'd at Melbourne worlds after Crocker left the blocks early in the prelims; rules allow for a grace period of three hundredths of a second, but Crocker took off four hundredths early.
Coaches traditionally use the athletes who have swum the fastest in each individual race during the event finals. That should be