Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Swimming has been a part of the Olympic program since the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, when the competitions took place in the open air in a yachting marina on the Saronic Gulf.
Much has changed since those first modern Games, but ironically, in its return to the origin of the Olympics, swimming will again be held in the open air this summer.
That's because the tarpaulin roof Olympic organizers had planned on building could not be constructed in time for the Games. But the U.S. team is unfazed, even going so far as to have its trials in a temporary outdoor pool set up in Long Beach, California.
"The bottom line is that everyone will be competing under the same conditions, so it will still be a level playing field," U.S. Swimming's national team director Everett Uchiyama said.
The Olympic program includes 26 individual and six team relay events for the men and women in a 50 meter pool. The individual events are freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and individual medley style. The team events are the freestyle and medley relay.
For the first time in Olympic Games history, all Aquatics events will take place in a single venue, the Olympic Aquatic Centre of the Athens Olympic Sports Complex. Swimming starts off the Aquatics program, which will span all 16 days of the Games from August 14-29.
There's no question that the U.S. men's team is in a class of its own. The only question is, can it match the performance of the 1976 team that dominated the Montreal Games by winning 12 of the 13 gold medals awarded?
|Michael Phelps is on a collision course to possibly break Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals at one Olympics.|
With 19-year-old phenom Michael Phelps on a collision course to possibly match, or even break, Mark Spitz's 1972 record of seven gold medals at one Olympics, it seems that the American men may already be halfway there.
At the Olympic Trials in Long Beach, the Americans set six world records. Phelps bested his own mark in the 400m individual medley, and lost out to world-record performances by Ian Crocker in the 100m butterfly and Aaron Peirsol in the 200m backstroke. Brendan Hansen set two records, in the 100m and 200m breaststroke, and women's team member Amanda Beard added a world record performance in the 200m breaststroke.
Spitz was there in Long Beach to present Phelps with the first-place award for the 200 butterfly, which Phelps won by beating 2000 Olympic champion Tom Malchow by more than three seconds. He whispered into the young swimmer's ear before stepping onto the awards stand with him.
"I really think he has a shot to do this," Spitz said of the prospects of his 32-year-old record being broken. "That's one of the things I told him."
Phelps qualified for six individual events, but dropped out of the 200m backstroke for the Olympics, hoping to add at least two, and maybe all three, relay events to his schedule.
"To have someone like [Spitz] on your side is definitely going to get you a little more excited, and give you a little more confidence," Phelps said. "That was probably one of the most exciting moments I've had."
Phelps isn't the only swimmer looking to make history: Gary Hall Jr. qualified for a spot on the men's 400m freestyle relay team by virtue of his third-place finish in the 100m, punching his ticket to a third Olympics. He and his father, Gary Hall Sr., are the first father-and-son duo to qualify for three Olympic Games apiece. Gary Jr. has eight career Olympic medals.
So with Phelps set to compete in at least seven events, and the U.S. team boasting strong athletes up and down the roster, the Americans should perform as well, if not better, than the 2000 team, which won 33 medals in Sydney.
The women's team figured in those 33 medals as well four years ago, but expectations placed on them in Athens will be far less than those faced by the men. Still, there are plenty of gold-medal contenders.
Beard, who won a bronze in the 200m breaststroke in Sydney and three medals (one gold, two silvers) in Atlanta in 1996, could compete for gold in as many as three events this summer.
Then there is Jenny Thompson, the most decorated American woman at the Olympics with 10 medals, including eight golds. Thompson, who looks to graduate from Columbia Medical School next year, qualified for two individual events in what will be her fourth Olympics. She is still looking for her first individual gold.
Swimming Canada named 20 members to its Olympic team following the last day of trials on July 20. Although none of the swimmers heading to Athens have medaled at the Olympics, Canada has taken home at least one medal in each of the last three Summer Games.
"We still have some hard work to do to get ready for Athens, but these athletes have a lot of spirit and enthusiasm," said head coach Dave Johnson. "Medals are within our grasp, and these athletes have shown that they've accepted the challenge."
The toughest competition for the Americans in Athens will come from the Australian team, led by Ian Thorpe, which took home four golds, five silvers and three bronze medals as the host country in 2000.
Phelps will face off against world record holder Thorpe in the 200m freestyle, along with Dutch swimmer, and defending Olympic champion, Pieter van den Hoogenband. The Americans will also likely see stiff competition from Russia, Japan, Italy and the Netherlands.
Massi Rosolino of Italy set the world record in the 200m individual medley in Sydney only to have it broken by Phelps last year.
On the women's side, Dutchwoman Inge De Bruijn set three Olympic records in Sydney and is one of the favorites to repeat as champion in the 50m and 100m freestyle races as long as the 100m butterfly.
Yana Klochkova of the Ukraine set Olympic records in winning the 200m and 400m individual medleys in Sydney and is considered a favorite to win both races again in Athens.
By Gerard Gallagher, Olympic Contributing Editor