Gold No. 1 Phelps sets 400 IM world record

Sunday, August 15, 2004

By Paul Newberry ~ The Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- Michael Phelps grabbed his head in disbelief, then thrust his left fist in the air.

The first one's out of the way.

He's an Olympic champion -- just like Mark Spitz.

Phelps began his quest to overtake Spitz's 1972 record haul of seven gold medals with a dominating performance in the 400-meter individual medley, breaking his own world record Saturday night and claiming the first U.S. gold medal of the Athens Games.

Ian Thorpe won his second straight gold in the 400 freestyle -- a race he got into only through the generosity of a teammate -- but Jenny Thompson was denied her record-tying ninth gold medal when she gave up the lead to Australia on the final leg of the 400 free relay.

Still, it was a good night for the powerful American team, which began eight days in the Olympic pool with a 1-2 finish. Phelps touched the wall in 4 minutes, 8.26 seconds, while teammate Erik Vendt was more than 3 1/2 seconds behind but good enough for silver at 4:11.81.

"I'm a little bit less nervous," said Phelps, 19, of Baltimore. "I've got one off my shoulders and can relax a little bit."

It was a rousing start to the much-anticipated Olympic meet, but Phelps is just getting warmed up. He will likely swim in eight events, giving him a chance to break Spitz's record at the Munich Games.

So far, Phelps is following the script of the greatest swimmer in Olympic history. All seven of Spitz's wins were in record time.

Thorpe almost missed the 400 free -- his best event -- when he inexplicably fell off the starting block at the Australian trials, earning an automatic disqualification. But he got in when teammate Craig Stevens gave up his spot.

Thorpe barely held off another countryman, Grant Hackett, to win in 3:43.10. American Klete Keller took bronze for the second straight Olympics.

"I didn't realize how much this event meant to me," said Thorpe, who fought back tears after touching the wall. "I am more excited now that it is off my shoulders."

Thompson, 31, had a chance for her ninth gold when she dove into the water for the anchor leg with a lead of nearly four-tenths of a second.

But the greatest relay swimmer in U.S. history couldn't hold it. Jodie Henry passed Thompson after they made the final turn nearly in unison, touching the wall in 3:35.94 to break the world record of 3:36.00 set by Germany two years ago.

For Phelps, first gold was easy enough. Phelps had a body-length lead after the butterfly, stretched it to more than three seconds during the backstroke and cruised to victory in the breaststroke and freestyle.

His only challenger was the clock. After touching the wall, Phelps turned quickly toward the scoreboard to see his time -- 0.15 better than the record he set last month at the U.S. Olympic trials.

After a moment of apparent disbelief, he swam across a couple of lane ropes to give Vendt a hug.

"We have one main goal, and that's to emerge as the most dominant Olympic men's team in history," Vendt said. "When he saw I got second, it seemed he was more excited about that than his own race. It just shows the kind of guy Michael is. He's a team player."

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