Phelps one event away

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Only one leg remains on Michael Phelps' journey to Athens, the Olympic Games' birthplace and, perhaps, the place where he will be re-born from teen sensation to swimming legend.

By the end of his marathon Monday at the Olympic swimming trials, the 19-year-old might have felt more like a lumbering cargo plane after a long day of takeoffs and landings -- he competed in one morning preliminary heat, plus one semifinal and two finals at night -- than the butterfly he will try to resemble Tuesday.

"[Monday] was the hardest night I've ever had," Phelps said.

In the 100-meter butterfly final the Baltimore-born Phelps will attempt to activate the master plan he and his coach, Bob Bowman, designed to give Phelps the best shot at matching or making history at the Games.

Eating does not seem to help, but five, six or even seven Olympic gold medals finally would add some weight to his flab-free 6-4, 195-pound frame.

Qualifying in the 100 fly, where he will be wing to wing with 2003 world champion Ian Crocker, would send Phelps to Athens with shots in six individual events and the prospect of up to three relay events still to be determined by the Olympic coaching staff. Phelps' loss to Crocker last summer in Barcelona was a rare setback in a meet where he broke an unimaginable five world records.

"The faster (Crocker) goes, the faster Michael will go," Bowman said after the Monday 100 fly preliminaries. "They push each other."

Crocker, who had the fastest time of the day in his semifinal (51.25 seconds compared to Phelps' 51.89 in the other heat), adopts the tone of a reigning world champ by warning, "I love surprising myself and surprising other people."

Substance more than surprise was the theme Monday inside the sun-baked, 10,000-seat temporary stadium where spindly metal grandstands literally swayed when the crowds erupted.

Amid the delirium of two world records falling back-to-back (Amanda Beard's 2:22.44 in the 200 breaststroke, and Aaron Peirsol's 1:54.74 in the 200 back, which eclipsed Phelps for the second time in two months), Phelps quietly began an assault on the standards established more than three decades ago by American swimmer Mark Spitz.

Phelps qualified in the 200 back, with Peirsol, then won the 200 individual medley, tying Spitz' record four wins in a single trials. Phelps now owns the U.S. record for most individual Olympic event qualifications -- five -- and, presumably, he'll add a sixth Tuesday.

Even on a night Peirsol continued his domination of Phelps in the 200 back, the personable Californian and University of Texas star politely sat through a series of Phelps-themed questions.

"He definitely deserves the attention he is getting," said Peirsol, 20, reigning world champion in the 100 back and 200 back. "I don't mind."

Phelps-mania has not overshadowed two world records by Brendan Hansen earlier in the meet, nor diluted the dominant efforts of Peirsol and Crocker, but some wonder whether it will breed resentment as the circus moves to Greece.

"It's still [Phelps'] trials," said University of Texas coach Eddie Reese, the appointed U.S. coach for Athens. "He's pretty amazing. He does it [wins] at every big meet. We begin to believe it's standard fare. But, you have to know this, it's not. It's awesome."

Despite Reese's diplomatic offering, is is clear that a storm is gathering as the legend builds. The Phelps camp is already re-thinking the number of events he should swim in the Games -- nine might be impossible, after all -- and cannot ignore the reality that Phelps' presumed ascension to the 4x100 relay lineup will become a debate.

"We'll have to see how things are going in [the pre-Athens] training camp before we decide the schedule," said Phelps, a few moments before Bowman agreed that the game plan will be reviewed.

A number of sprint relay swimmers are not "reviewing" the suggestion that Phelps be named to the 400-meter relay team because he is, well, Phelps. They are already in rejection mode.

"In my opinion, to be on the relay, [Phelps] will have to prove himself, whether here or in a time trial," said Jason Lezak, who recorded the day's fastest 50 freestyle time in the semifinals, with his showdown against Gary Hall Jr. coming Tuesday. "The coach [Reese] can't just put him on the team because of who he is. That wouldn't be fair to anyone."

Others on the relay "earn their spot," Peirsol said. "He needs to swim [a time trial]."

"As I've said before," Reese said, "I want Michael Phelps to be in all the events he can swim in and swim well."

Settling on that magic number is a problem all of Phelps' fellow swimmers would love to have.