U.S. vs. Australia - Two squads promise a battle in the water

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

ATHENS, Greece -- No home crowds, an outdoor pool and maybe even a tougher American team this time around. Everything's shaping up just fine for the Australian swimmers at the Athens Games.

Ian Thorpe & Co. are competing far from Sydney, where they won 18 medals in 2000, but they said that's giving them a chance to relax -- even as a showdown looms with U.S. star Michael Phelps.

Backstroker Matt Welsh insisted he loves the roofless pool in Athens; first-time Olympian Libby Lenton cried tears of joy just to see it.

And the Americans? Hey, the pool has eight lanes and Phelps only takes up one of them.

"There are a lot of other countries out there other than the red, white and blue," Aussie coach Leigh Nugent said Tuesday.

In 2000, the swimming rivalry between the Australians and Americans turned into one of the highlights of the games. Gary Hall Jr. famously predicted that the U.S. team would smash the Aussies "like guitars" (and the Americans did win 33 medals), but it was the Australians who did an air jam after Thorpe overcame Hall in the last leg of the 400-meter freestyle relay.

This time around, the Americans are talking about topping their Sydney medal take and Phelps, regarded by many as the greatest swimmer in the world right now, is aiming for eight golds.

"This could be one of the strongest teams since the '76 team," Eddie Reese, the U.S. men's coach, said recently.

Thorpe and Grant Hackett, winner of two golds in Sydney, were careful not to say anything outright antagonistic about the Americans at a packed news conference -- but they seemed at least ready to poke the U.S. team a little.

Winner of three golds and two silvers in Sydney, the "Thorpedo" announced that "I don't swim for medals, I swim for performance. The differene is you have control over your own performance, not where you come in a race." Explain that to Hall and to Phelps, who says he can't wait for his lone head-to-head matchup against Thorpe, in the 200 freestyle.

Speaking about financial bonuses -- Speedo is offering Phelps $1 million if he equals or breaks Mark Spitz's record of seven golds at one Olympics -- Hackett said that if he got such a windfall "I'd give it straight to charity."

Phelps is so talented he just might reach his goal, Hackett said, but it also sets him up -- somewhat unfairly -- for a let down. "If you win six gold medals it's going to be a disappointment, and it's a huge result," he said.

Sporting a three-day beard and blond streaks in his hair, Thorpe got rock-star treatment from the throng of photographers at the news conference, but the pressure on him and the other Aussies is just a bit less relentless than it was in Sydney. Thorpe said that, even though he still finds himself hounded even in the athletes' village, he and his teammates can chill out in a sort of village green in the Australian section.

"I suppose that experience (of competing at home) brings a lot of pressure," said Petria Thomas, a four-time medal winner appearing in her third Olympics. "I think I feel a lot more relaxed coming over here."

Nugent, who said Australia is fielding its deepest team since the Munich Olympics in 1972, dismissed concerns about the Olympic pool overheating under the relentless Grecian sun. For one thing, wind would actually slow down times more, he said. And for another, conditions are the same for everybody.

"We haven't come here to set world records," he said. "We've come here to compete in the Olympics."

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