BEIJING -- When Michael Phelps finally hit the pool Saturday evening for the final heat of the men's 400 IM after months of anticipation, it was clear that fast-paced competition at the Water Cube would not be limited to the water this week.
High up in the steep slopes of the press tribune, radio announcers seemed to burst off the blocks, too. As they delivered excited lap-by-lap reports in Spanish, Chinese, Turkish and dozens of other tongues, the only common sounds were "Michael Phelps!" For the first few minutes of the race, Phelps matched the broadcasters' staccato cadence, churning through the first 150 meters under world-record pace. Then he apparently remembered where he was -- the qualifying heats of the first of his eight events -- and eased his foot off the gas. He finished in 4:07.82, beating his four-year-old Olympic record by half a second. "I didn't think it would be that fast in the prelims," he said afterward. "It's going to shape up for a pretty good race tomorrow."
Phelps was one of the swimmers teammate Brendan Hansen said was "showing their hand" Saturday. Hansen turned in a quiet 100 breast, the only individual race he'll swim in this Olympics. His 1:00.36 was fourth in his heat, 10th overall, and more than half a second behind his Japanese rival Kosuke Kitajima, but he didn't seem concerned. "I don't want to be the center of attention just yet," Hansen said afterward. "I don't want to be breaking world records on the first night. It's like we're playing a card game right now and those guys are showing their hand. I'm just showing them the back and that's where I want to be."
You have to wonder is Hansen is as unperturbed as he appears. After all, he has had a bead on an individual Olympic gold medal ever since he met Nelson Diebel, the 1992 Olympic champion in the 100 breaststroke, as an 11-year-old and tried on his gold medal. Turning to his dad, Buzz, Hansen said, "Dad, I want one of these."
He was foiled four years ago in Athens, when Kitajima won both breaststroke events. The victory in the 100 was controversial. Aaron Peirsol, Hansen's Longhorn Aquatics teammate, protested that Kitajima had used a then-illegal dolphin kick at the start of the race, but the victory stood. At the Trials in Omaha, Hansen missed his chance to regain his world record and win an Olympic gold in the 200 breaststroke when he came in fourth. That puts a lot of weight on the 100. The final will be Monday morning.
Overall, the U.S. had an impressive start to its Olympic mission. Aside from Mark Gangloff, who came in 16th the 100 breast to squeak into the semifinals, every American who swam Saturday advanced easily. In the women's 400 IM, 15-year-old Elizabeth Beisel displayed none of the nerves that felled the teenaged Katie Hoff four years ago in Athens, when she finished 17th in 400 IM prelims and promptly threw up on the pool deck. Saturday, Beisel qualified first, just ahead of Hoff, in a time of 4:34.55. She said nerves didn't bother her tonight. "But I'm sure tomorrow morning, I'll be a little on edge."
The team that opened a lot of eyes Saturday night was host China, which had been flying under the radar the last few years. When asked last month what he knew about the Chinese team, U.S. women's head coach Jack Bauerle said, a bit helplessly, "Not much." After tonight he knows this: Zhang Lin finished second to top qualifier Larsen Jensen in the men's 400 free; Zhou Yafei finished third in the women's 100 fly, and the women's 4x100 free team finished first ahead of powers Australia, the U.S. and the Netherlands. But come Sunday morning, we'll find out how much of their hand they showed.