Fatigue, tough competition await Phelps on his road to eight gold
Michael Phelps' bid to win an unprecedented eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics is loaded with land mines, or perhaps water mines, in several individual events and at least one relay. This is a look at what Phelps has in store during the nine days of swimming events. Remember that all finals will take place during the mornings in Beijing, which is 12 hours ahead of East Coast time in the U.S. The morning swimming sessions begin at 10:00 AM in Beijing; evening sessions begin at 6:30 PM.
Saturday, August 9
Evening (Saturday morning in the U.S.) -- 400m individual medley prelims
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.
Sunday, August 10
Phelps often likes to record the fastest qualifying time in order to snag the preferred lane four for the final and to send a message to the rest of the field that he isn't messing around, even in the heats.
Morning (Saturday night in the U.S.) -- 400m individual medley final
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.
Evening (Sunday day in the U.S.) -- 200m freestyle prelims
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.
Monday August 11
Morning (Sunday night in the U.S.) -- 200m freestyle semifinals, 4x100m freestyle final
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 Ian Crocker battled illness and swam a poor lead-off leg for the U.S. team that never recovered from its early deficit.
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, Neil Walker, Cullen Jones and Jason Lezak. Look for U.S. coaches, who can theoretically pick anyone on the team, to choose Phelps, Lezak, Jones and Garrett Weber-Gale, who threw down a 47.92 to win the open hundred at trials. The 3:12.72 they posted to win worlds could be enough to win, but Alain Bernard, France's top relay swimmer, has predicted openly that his team will "smash the Americans." This is unquestionably the toughest of Phelps' three potential relay golds.
Evening (Monday day in the U.S.) -- 200m butterfly prelims
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.
Tuesday August 12
Morning (Monday night in the U.S.) -- 200m freestyle finals, 200 butterfly semifinals
Phelps put himself on the line by swimming the 200 free in Athens, since Australia's Ian Thorpe and Dutchman Pieter Van den Hoogenband were clearly faster at the time and favored to beat him. That race went according to form, with Phelps settling for third, his lone individual non-gold at those Games. Now, Thorpe is retired, "Hoogie" is sticking to the 100 and Phelps is the world-record holder at 1:43.86 and should be a strong favorite in this race.
South Korea's much-improved Park Tae-hwan, also a strong racer at 400 meters, could put on a late charge, as could Italian Massi Rosolino. Phelps won this race by 2.4 seconds in Melbourne. Barring a tidal wave, this should be a certain gold.
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.
Wednesday August 13
Morning (Tuesday night in the U.S.) -- 200m butterfly final, 4x200m freestyle final
Evening (Wednesday day in the U.S.) -- 200m individual medley prelims
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 Wu Peng and Russia's Nikolai Skvortsov. Phelps can close this race in almost 58 seconds, a sizzling back half that nobody else can touch. If the world record is within his grasp, it will be interesting to see how closely he chases it, given the relay staring him in the face. Phelps will have a quick warm down, a lactate test to check his oxygen levels and an award ceremony within 15 minutes after the 200 fly final.
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, Klete Keller and Peter Vanderkaay swam 7:03.24 at the worlds in Melbourne to finish seven seconds ahead of Australia and Canada. The coaches could conceivably pick the same four this time, although you'll likely see Erik Vendt in the mix. In any case, this relay team should be safely ahead.
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.
Thursday, August 14
Morning (Wednesday night in the U.S.) -- 200m individual medley semifinals
Evening (Thursday day in the U.S.) -- 100m butterfly prelims
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 Laszlo Cseh, who has twice traded the world record in the short-course race with Lochte. In Omaha, Lochte swam a half second faster than Phelps (1:57.57 to 1:58.08) in the semis to secure lane four for the finals. The guess here is that the swimmer who doesn't win the 400 IM will have added incentive to throw down the faster semi time.
Look for Ian Crocker to post the fastest time in the butterfly prelims, as Phelps opts to coast through. Crocker has only the one individual race to worry about and Phelps has beaten him at the last Olympics, worlds and trials, even though Crocker's world record (50.40) is a time Phelps has never approached. Crocker will be eager to race and may be in the mid-to-high 51s, as he was at trials. Phelps should come in around 52, even if he feels frisky. The next day, after all, may be the toughest one.
Friday, August 15
Morning (Thursday night in the U.S.) -- 200m individual medley final, 100m butterfly semifinals
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.
Saturday, August 16
Morning (Friday night in the U.S.) -- 100m butterfly final
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 Milorad Cavic is the pick here for third, but unless one of the U.S. swimmers blows up, it will be a distant third. Crocker has a blazing start and Phelps will need to get off the blocks quickly. In Omaha, Crocker hit the turn in 23.93 and actually held a lead of .48 seconds before he faded. Remember that Phelps is the world-record holder in the 200 fly, a race Crocker doesn't swim. That will give him an advantage in the back half of the race. If both men swim at their absolute best, Crocker would be favored (Phelps' PR is 50.77, nearly four-tenths slower than Crocker), but Crocker has never been a big-race guy. If both men go to the wall close together, the edge should go to Phelps. If Crocker's form, emotional and physical, is right, Phelps could fall here.
Sunday, August 17
Morning (Saturday night in the U.S.) -- 4x100m medley relay final
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 Aaron Peirsol in the backstroke and Brendan Hanson in the breaststroke. Phelps would be the likely butterfly swimmer, with the faster of Webber-Gale and Jason Lezak anchoring. Coaches would also have the option of using Crocker on the butterfly leg and Phelps on the freestyle leg, since Phelps' best time in the 100 free, 47.92, would be plenty fast to bring the team home. It would also be a symbolic coronation to have Phelps hit the final wall with a record-tying or record-setting touch.