Starting at U.S. trials, the world is Phelps' for the taking

OMAHA, Neb. -- Exit Tiger Woods. Enter Michael Phelps.

The throne is vacant in sports for the remainder of the summer. In Woods' absence, it's time to fit Phelps' head for the crown as King of All Athletes.

Over the next six weeks, while Woods is rehabbing and football is going through the preseason motions, the world is Phelps'. If all goes as planned, beginning here this weekend at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, Phelps' broad-chinned mug will be the face of the Beijing Games in August. He'll dominate TV coverage, grace every magazine cover and pitch products like a mainstream sports superstar.

That's because the most gifted swimmer in history stands a solid chance of becoming the most decorated Olympian in history.

The pursuit begins Sunday at the trials. It could end in Beijing with enough hardware to curve his spine: a record eight gold medals (at least) in a single Games, and a record 14 golds (at least) in his impossibly accomplished career.

This is the launching pad for an ambitious bid to test the outer limits of a swimmer's ability, versatility, toughness and focus.

"I think it is going to be hard, but I think it's going to be fun," Phelps said. "I've been looking forward to this for four years. All I have to do is get my cap and goggles and go race. That's all I can ask."

He's asking a lot. In a sport in which specialists focus their mind and body on a couple of events, Phelps is the generalist who excels at everything. He's so well-rounded that it wouldn't be a shock to see him show up on the synchronized swim team, too.

"He could swim any event," U.S. women's star Natalie Coughlin said. "It's like watching any other athlete, like Tiger Woods. It's like, 'Oh my God. He's so good.'"

That all-around excellence will keep Phelps in the Qwest Center pool constantly between now and July 6. There are other story lines at play here -- the space-age Speedo LZR Racer swimsuits that could help set a slew of world records; the bids by a handful of women veterans to make yet another Olympic team -- but there is no confusion about who is the star of the show.

Michael Phelps.

"He is the A-lister for our sport in this country," breaststroker Brendan Hansen said.

And the rest of the world, too.

The leading man will go through an exhausting regimen of preliminaries in the morning and finals at night, taking on more rested rivals. And then he'll recharge and repeat it in China.

He'll race more times than anyone else at these trials, and presumably again in August. Phelps had entered nine events here, but dropped out of the 400 Saturday -- an event serving as a safety net in case something goes awry elsewhere in his program.

Without surrendering any details, coach Bob Bowman acknowledged that the events Phelps swam in his otherworldly performance at the 2007 World Championships made up "a pretty good program." That consisted of the 100- and 200-meter freestyles, the 100 and 200 butterflies, and the 200 and 400 individual medleys. If he qualifies in all six of those and adds three relays in Beijing, we could be talking nine golds and officially saying goodbye to the 36-year-old legacy of Mark Spitz.

Spitz recently was asked what it would mean for Phelps to win seven gold medals.

"Second man on the moon," he said.

What if he wins eight?

"First man on Mars."

Phelps has had his telescopic sights set on Mars and then some since Athens. Four years ago, at age 19, his bid to outdo Spitz came up just short -- he finished with six golds and two bronzes. That was still good enough to tie Soviet Union gymnast Alexandr Dityatin for the most medals won by an athlete in a single Olympics -- but it was just a little short of perfection.

Then he went absolutely ballistic at the 2007 world championships in Melbourne, Australia, winning seven gold medals and setting four individual world records. If a relay hadn't been disqualified, he would have added an eighth gold. Phelps simply dwarfed the rest of the swimming world.

After that, all things seemed possible.

"Phelps is amazing," said Ryan Lochte, who will try to knock off the king in as many as four events. "To swim next to him in the same pool and on the same team, it's an honor."

The driven young man who keeps a list of his goals on his nightstand at home in Ann Arbor, Mich., has relocated them to his laptop for this meet. Phelps won't say exactly what's on his list, but it's clearly changed as he's grown older and gotten better.

"If you asked me five years ago whether I'd be sitting where I am, I'd say, 'Not a chance,'" Phelps said. "It's a dream come true."

The dream is still unfolding for Michael Phelps. If it continues to play out to perfection, we'll see him standing on the top step of the medals podium again and again this summer, on his way to taking over from Tiger Woods as the King of All Athletes.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.