BY Phillip Whitten
LONG BEACH, Calif., July 14. The 43-member US swim team – 21 men and 22 women — is expected to dominate at next month's Olympic Games in Athens, but the prospets for the men and women could not be more different.
The American squad is led by 19 year-old Michael Phelps, who will attempt to equal or surpass Mark Spitz's unparalleled seven Olympic gold medals from the 1972 Games in Munich. Phelps will swim the 200-meter freestyle, both butterfly and both medleys. He is also likely to swim on at least two of the three US relays. Whether he swims in the finals of the medley relay probably depends on whether or not he upsets world record-holde Ian Crocker in the 100-meter fly.
Seven members of the team are current world record-holders: Ian Crocker (100-m butterfly), Brendan Hansen (100- and 200-m breaststroke), Lenny Krayzlburg (100-m backstroke), Aaron Peirsol (200-m backstroke) and Michael Phelps (200-m butterfly, and 200- and 400-m medley) for the men; Amanda Beard (200-m breaststroke) and Natalie Coughlin (100-m backstroke) for the women.
In addition, Gary Hall, Jr. (50 free), Jason Lezak (100 free) and Amanda Beard (200 IM) have the world's top time in 2004.
The United States is expected to be the dominant team in Athens next month, but aside from superficial similarities such as age, the men's and women's teams could not be more different.
Seventeen of the 21 men — nearly 81 percent — are professional athletes, a radical change from past US teams. Only 12 of the women — 54.5 percent — are pros,
In terms of experience at the Olympic level, the differences are even more striking: 11 of the men, but only five of the women, have swum on previous US Olympic teams.
Olympic Prospects: The Men
The major contrast between the two teams, however, lies in their prospects.
The US men should be favored to win gold in fully nine of the 13 individual events:
50-meter freestyle: Gary Hall, Jr.
100 and 200-m backstroke: Aaron Peirsol
100 and 200-m breaststroke: Brendan Hansen
100-m butterfly: Ian Crocker
200-m butterfly: Michael Phelps
200 and 400-m individual medley: Michael Phelps.
In all of those events, the US boasts the world's top time of 2004, and in eight of the nine, that top time has been recorded by the world record-holder. In addition, Jason Lezak has notched the world's number one time this year in the 100-m freestyle (48.17).
In the remaining events — the 100, 200, 400 and 1500-m freestyle — the American men are likely to contend for silver and bronze medals.
The USA, with world record-holders Peirsol, Hansen and Crocker swimming back, breast and fly — and 2004 100-m freestyle world leader Lezak on the anchor — is an overwhelming favorite to win the medley relay.
In the 4×100-m freestyle relay, they will battle Russia, Australia, South Africa and Italy for gold, while in the 4×200-m freestyle relay, they are rated as slight underdogs to Australia.
Olympic Prospects: The Women
The US women, by contrast, are only favored in the 100-m backstroke and, perhaps, in the 200-m breaststroke, where Amanda Beard lowered the world record set only a week ago by Australia's Leisel Jones. Jones, however, was still in heavy training when she set her mark, so Beard can expect some serious competion. In three other events — the 100-m breast and both medleys — American women should contend for gold.
Unlike the men, the American women will be hard-pressed to earn a medal of any kind in as many as seven events: the 50 through 400-m freestyle, 200-m backstroke and both butterfly events.
Oddly enough, what may work in the USA's favor is the inexperience of many of the Americans:
* Young Katie Hoff is a definite contendedr in both medleys, though she faces world record-holder Yana Klochkova, not to mention her American teammates Beard and Kaitlin Sandeno.
* Kara Lynn Joyce may very well rise to the occasion in the 50 and 100m free.
* Kalyn Keller just loves to race. When she goes up against opponents such as Sachiko Yamada (Japan) and Eva Risztov (Hungary), to name just a few, she is unlikely to be intimidated
The American women will have their work cut out for them in the relays as well. They are favored in the medley, but Australia will challenge for the gold.
In the 4×100-m freestyle, Australia and Germany appear a bit stronger, with The Netherlands also bidding to medal.
In the 4×200-m free relay Britain appears to have the edget, with the US and Australia battling for silver.