Thursday January 20th, 2005

With the Olympics just a few months away, here are some of the stories U.S. fans may be following in Athens:

If you don't know his name by now, you will hear it just about every time a swimming race starts in Athens. If all goes well at the Olympic trials in Long Beach, Calif., this summer, Phelps will be entered in eight events at the Games. It may be tough for him to duplicate Mark Spitz's 1972 standard of seven golds at one Olympics, given a) Phelps will be stretched pretty thin and some of his competitors will be able to specialize in fewer races, and b) the U.S. men may win only one of the three relays. But his chances of becoming the first athlete to win eight medals at one Olympics are better than people realize.

The Cal Bear has set 16 U.S. swim records, but she has also had her share of bad luck. Coughlin just missed making the 2000 Olympic team and last summer, in what was supposed to be her breakout season on the international circuit, she took ill at the world championships in Barcelona and pulled out of most of her races. With most of the pre-Olympic spotlight on Phelps, Coughlin may just be ready for that exceptional year.

The wrestler who beat the unbeatable Russian Alexandr Karelin (and then cartwheeled in celebration) in Sydney has found more difficult foes in moving vehicles than he has on the mat. After winning the world title in 2001, Gardner lost a toe to severe frostbite during a snowmobiling outing. Last month, he was thrown from his motorcycle, but did not suffer serious injury. Simply to get to the Olympics, Gardner faces a stiff test from teammate Dremiel Byers, who won the 2002 worlds in Gardner's absence. If he wins the trials in May, Gardner could re-emerge as one of the feel-good stories of the Games.

The greatest U.S. cyclist in history still has just a bronze medal in the Sydney time trial to show for three trips to the Olympics. Armstrong has said he wants to compete in Athens in the road race, time trial or both. If he wins his record-breaking sixth Tour de France just weeks before, a gold in Athens could be the crowning achievement of a superior career.

It is impossible to single out one member on what may be the most balanced pair of teams the U.S. has fielded. Even if Blaine Wilson's torn biceps muscle does not heal in time for the Games, the U.S. men will be strong. The Hamm brothers, Paul and Morgan, have won multiple international medals since the Sydney Games, and Paul will enter as the defending world champion. Jason Gatson, perhaps the fourth-best member of the team, won the American Cup in February against an international field that included his three esteemed teammates. There are probably a dozen candidates to make the women's squad. Consider that Chellsie Memmel was an alternate on last year's world team, but the last-minute replacement played a vital role in helping the squad secure the gold. Carly Patterson, who won the all-around silver medal at the world championships, may be the best of this year's group, but there are many others on her heels.

In Sydney, Jones became the first track and field athlete to win five medals at one Olympics. But because only three were gold, Jones was remembered unfairly for having achieved less than she could have. She also has had several scandals swirl around her. Four years ago, Jones' then husband C.J. Hunter tested positive for steroids use. Last year, after she divorced Hunter and began dating fellow sprinter Tim Montgomery, Jones was spotted with Montgomery working with disgraced coach Charlie Francis, the Canadian guru of banned sprinter Ben Johnson. Under pressure, the pair parted with Francis. This year she testified in the federal investigation involving supplement company BALCO, for whom Jones and Montgomery are both clients. In addition to the hits to her reputation, Jones faces two other wild cards: she took last year off to have her first child, and she has begun working with new coach Dan Pfaff, who has overhauled Jones' sloppy long jump technique. She is downplaying the drive for five this year, but she's also eyeing it very closely.

Can anybody beat this team? Given the improvement of players around the world, the adverse crowd reaction U.S. teams are likely to encounter in Athens and the sheer law of numbers that eventually catch up to you, this may be the year the Dream Team has a nightmare. With three roster spots still to be named, the squad already looks formidable with Tracy McGrady, Jason Kidd, Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan, Karl Malone and, if he's still available, Kobe Bryant. But remember that Team USA barely escaped the clutches of Lithuania last time, and a modified Dream Team stumbled into sixth place at the 2002 worlds in Indianapolis. Serbia & Montenegro, gold medalists at that championships, will be back this year with NBA players Peja Stojakovic, Vladimir Radmanovic and Marco Jaric. (Vlade Divac has not committed to the team yet.) Lithuania (bronze medalists at the last three Olympics) and Argentina (world silver medalists) also will be tough, but watch for Team USA's second preliminary-round game against host nation Greece.

Can the top U.S. beach volleyball tandem outlast the teams from Brazil (Ana Paula/Sandra Pires and Adriana Behar/Shelda)? The pair only teamed up in 2001, but with Walsh at the net and May in the backcourt, the U.S. duo was ranked No. 1 in the world in 2002 and No. 2 in '03.

For those who didn't expect to see fencing on the A-list of Olympic stories, take note: This will be the best U.S. team assembled at an Olympics, with some of the most compelling stories. Sisters Sada and Emily Jacobson lead a strong squad in the debut event of women's team saber. But the best tale of all may be Keeth Smart, a product of the Peter Westbrook Foundation that introduces inner-city youth to the sport. Last year, Smart, also a saber fencer, became the first U.S. fencer in history to be ranked No. 1 in the world when he held that ranking for several weeks. Sada Jacobsen became the second later in the year. Should either of them medal in Athens, they would be the first U.S. fencers to do so since Westbrook won a bronze in 1984.

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