By Stephen J. Thomas
ATHENS, August 11. THE massive international media contingent had come to see one person at the press conference for Team USA.
The boy from Baltimore was clearly going to be the center of attention at this gathering despite the fact his teammates on the panel were all world record-holders in their own right. There was Ian Crocker (100 fly), Natalie Coughlin (100 backstroke), Amanda Beard (200 breaststroke), Aaron Peirsol (200 backstroke), Lenny Krayzelberg (100 backstroke) and Brendan Hansen (100/200 breaststroke) making-up an altogether very impressive group of athletes.
In fact it took Mary Wagner, the Communications Director for USA Swimming, to redirect the constant flow of questions from Phelps to the others on the panel and banish the photographers from the ugly scrum that had grown below him at the front of the room.
But let's get back to Michael! To give the 19-year-old his due, despite the pressure of his first Olympic Games as a superstar, attached with it the added expectation of his winning a truck-load of gold medals (let’s not mention a number again) and the enormous publicity he is receiving back home, he appeared relaxed, confident and simply enjoying the experience. This straightforward approach is one that any team psychologist would understand as a blessing for a man about to undertake the demanding program that begins Saturday.
Phelps explained that his approach to this meet would be the same as at the US Trials last month. “I’ll deal with each event, one at a time. Every race is important to me.”
Phelps said he was excited to be racing Thorpe, van den Hoogenband and Hackett in the 200 free in what many are calling “the race of the century” and that his goal was to swim fast (a likely prospect, we think). When asked if it was possible for him to narrow the almost two-second gap with the Thorpedo and Hoogie over the distance Phelps replied, “anything is possible, all opportunities are endless.”
Other team members agreed they did not feel they were in the shadow of Phelps. Amanda Beard explained, “we don’t feel that way at all. We are all working towards the same goal. Michael is bringing great recognition to our sport. He’s a great athlete and deserves the attention.”
Brendan Hansen, coming into his first Olympics on the back of two world records, said he was unsure how he’d handle being at the Olympics. “On the bus I had butterflies in my stomach but they were good butterflies," he said. “I’m focused on the race rather than world records … I’m looking forward to racing Kitajima (Japan’s former world record-holder) but at the Olympics everybody is a threat.”
Veteran Lenny Krayzelburg said he had not been sure how he was going to go at US trials but was feeling more confident now. “I dug deep at Trials and got my hand on the wall second. Now I’ll try an get there first this time round.”
To do that he would have to beat teammate Aaron Peirsol who was sitting to his left at the press conference. Peirsol, in a playful mood, was quick to say that Lenny was still “the king” even if he would not admit it. “Our goal is to go 1-2. We are certainly aiming for that. We both have been training better since the Trials,” Peirsol said.
Another tough challenge for Phelps will be to get on top of teammate and 100 fly world record-holder, Ian Crocker. The swimmer who finishes on top in this race will almost be guaranteed a gold medal in the 400 medley relay.
Crocker was part of the team that won gold at the Sydney Olympics and then again at the World Champs last year when he beat Phelps in the final in world record time. Crocker predicted the 100 fly will be the fastest race ever, with a time under 50 seconds needed to take gold.
Amanda Beard said although it was her third time, “you don’t get used to swimming at the Olympics.” She was focusing on the 200 breaststroke while she planned to ”just have fun” in the 100 breaststroke and the 200 IM, the first time she has swum that latter race internationally.
First-time Olympian, Natalie Coughlin spoke of her disappointment at being ill at the World Champs in Barcelona last year but asserted that that was now behind her.
“I am focusing on getting off to a great start as part of the 400 freestyle relay on the first night,” she said.
“I have some goals that I prefer to keep personal but it would be great to get best times in my events” she said. Of course a ‘best time’ in the 100 backstroke would mean breaking her own world mark.
The team was in agreement that it would be foolish to place too much emphasis on the Aussie vs USA rivalry. Karyzelburg summed up the feeling by saying, “the Olympics goes beyond just two countries. Competition can come from anywhere.”