A year away from Games, Phelps not only athlete competing for glory

Nastia Liukin doesn't need any reminding that the Beijing Olympics are a year away.

If anything, it's amazing that she can think about anything else.

She lives with her parents in a medal-packed home in Parker, Texas. Her father, Valeri, won four medals (two gold, two silver) in the 1988 Olympics, and her mother, Anna, won the 1987 world title in rhythmic gymnastics. When Nastia trains at the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy, her father doubles as her coach. And when she goes shopping or enjoys a sushi lunch, she's often hanging out with none other than Carly Patterson, who won the all-around gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and trained alongside of Liukin at WOGA.

"I definitely know the date," said Liukin, trying to hold back chuckles considering how obvious it is that the Olympics are on her mind. "The Olympics begin 8/8/08. It's been on my mind for the last few years. It's a little overwhelming if you think about it too much."

How does Liukin get her mind off of Beijing? Well, at the moment, she's focusing on the upcoming Visa Championships, set for Aug. 15-18 in San Jose. A two-time national all-around champion, Liukin is hoping to add a third title to her collection. She also is slated to compete in the World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, Sept. 1-9.

Liukin won world titles in the uneven bars and the balance beam in 2005 -- honors that finally made her feel like she belonged in the family.

"I could finally joke that everyone in our house was a world champion," she said.

One big advantage Liukin has over her competitors is that she got to see firsthand how Patterson handled everything leading up to the 2004 Games. Liukin was a junior-level competitor at the time and basically out of the national media spotlight. But she watched closely when reporters would stop to interview Patterson, and she's been able to talk to Patterson about what to expect down the road.

When they get together, Liukin said they try not to talk about gymnastics, but she knows Patterson is available for advice if needed.

"I'm in a really good situation with her," Liukin said. "If I'm having a hard time, I know I can get support from her."

Amidst all the pressure of living up to such high expectations, Liukin has proved she's got some serious mental moxie. She hopes she can match that physically.

When she competes at the Visa Championships, it will mark the first time in about a year that she will be competing in all four events (balance beam, vault, floor exercise and uneven bars). Liukin injured her ankle shortly after the 2006 U.S. National Championships and underwent surgery last November.

Liukin said when doctors performed the surgery, they discovered that bone chips from the front of her ankle had traveled to the back of her Achilles. Liukin never had surgery before and didn't realize she was allergic to morphine; so, not only did she end up having a longer-than-expected surgery, but she also needed a few doses of Benadryl, too. She admits the pounding her ankle will take on the floor and vault will be the toughest, but believes she will be up to the physical challenges she'll have to face at nationals and worlds.

But like most athletes who compete in individual sports, Liukin's ultimate goal is the Olympics. And today, she is ever aware that she has 365 days until Beijing.

The athletes are abundantly aware how fast things will happen down this Olympic stretch. But what does the average sports fan know entering into the last lap?

Here are a few of the story lines that just might keep you from reaching for that remote next summer and watching "American Idol" instead of the Olympics:

1. Will Michael Phelps beat Mark Spitz's record this time around?
OK, so this guy doesn't really need an introduction, since he became the face of the Olympics four years ago in Athens. While he had one heck of a ride in Greece, scoring six gold medals and two bronze, he still returned back to the United States one medal shy of his ultimate goal -- matching Mark Spitz's record of seven Olympic golds back in 1972 in Munich.

Phelps is back again, and it seems he's even more prepared to accomplish that goal now. A year after Athens, Phelps encountered a bout of the Olympic blues. It was hard for him to get pumped up to train again, especially in a new locale (he moved from his home in Baltimore to follow his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, to the University of Michigan). It didn't help that he was arrested and charged with drunken driving, and later pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of driving while impaired and was sentenced to 18 months' probation.

But this past season, he's more than back on track. He's downright broken the track and virtually everyone in its path. He dominated the World Championships in March, claiming seven golds. This past week, Phelps won five golds (three in individual events, two in relays) at the U.S. Championships in Indianapolis. It's not so much that he's dominating, but now he's finding himself on pace to break world records in events that are new to his repertoire, such as the 100-meter backstroke. At nationals, he didn't even swim in the 200 butterfly (one of his bread-and-butter events).

Plan on seeing a lot of Phelps next summer, especially with the swimming finals scheduled for live TV coverage in the United States. Phelps might not beat "American Idol" ratings, but he'll be the Beijing Idol.

2. Can anyone upstage Phelps?
Unlikely. But the Olympics are about athletes with stories, and Dara Torres has a heck of a story. Torres began her ascent to national swimming success 25 years ago, when she captured her first U.S. title. This past week, at the age of 40, Torres won her 14th and 15th U.S. titles.

After a six-year hiatus from competitive swimming, a retirement that included the birth of her first child, daughter Tessa, in April 2006, Torres is now in position to compete in her fifth Olympic Games. It's not the most popular postpartum plan, but Torres is giving it a valiant try. Torres' comeback story is compelling as it is, but making it even more so is that she competes in the sprint events. She won the 50 and 100 freestyle events and was the only one in the 50 final to swim under 25 seconds. Her time of 24.53 seconds bested her own American record that she set seven years ago.

Sprints are usually the home of younger competitors, but Torres is proving otherwise. Her daughter might be in the midst of the terrible 2s next year, but 2008 might not be so terrible for Torres after all.

3. Will any other U.S. women make a splash?
Yes. Look out for Kate Ziegler and Katie Hoff. Ziegler, of Great Falls, Va., entered the record books in June when she broke Janet Evans' world record in the 1,500 free by nearly 10 seconds. The record, which Evans set in March 26, 1988, was the oldest in the books. Hoff, who was the youngest member of the 2004 U.S. Olympic squad, is one of the most versatile American swimmers. She won three golds at the World Championships.

4. Will Tara Kirk enjoy a Chinese "homecoming"?
U.S. swimmer Tara Kirk has been looking forward to the possibility of competing in Beijing ever since the International Olympic Committee announced the 2008 Games would be held there. Her grandfather, Leung Kwok-kong, was born in China, and her grandmother, Aw-young Mei-Len, was born in the Philippines to Chinese parents.

Kirk has visited China several times and was in Beijing for the 2001 World University Games a few weeks after the International Olympic Committee announced the capital city would play host to the Games.

"The opening ceremonies for the University Games were absolutely awe-inspiring, and for the closing ceremonies there was nearly an hour of fireworks," said Kirk, who swam in the prelims for the 400 medley relay that won a silver medal in 2004. "I remember standing there under the bursting lights and thinking that the show that they were going to put on in 2008 would be the celebration of the century."

Kirk, a former Stanford standout and 2005 Rhodes Scholar finalist, knows, however, it won't be an easy road to Beijing. A world silver medalist in the breaststroke, Kirk will face some tough competition from American record holder Jessica Hardy, two-time Olympic gold medalist Megan Jendrick (she competed as Megan Quann when she struck gold in Sydney and has since married) and newly crowned national champion Rebecca Soni.

"I respect my competitors a lot and know that I will have to be on top of my game to make sure that I get to compete for the USA at the Games," said Kirk, who was third behind Soni and Jendrick in the 100 breaststroke last week in Indianapolis. "However, even though [my family is] good about not putting pressure on me, I know they are excited. The Olympics are great, but the Olympics in China is a very special thing."

5. Will Liukin be the Games' golden girl?

The two-time U.S. all-around champ could find herself on the front of a Wheaties box if she wins gold in Beijing. But what might be even more likely to happen is that the United States women's team might recapture the spirit of Atlanta in 1996 (remember the Magnificent Seven?) and win the team gold.

With Shawn Johnson (2007 Pan Am Games all-around champion) and Chellsie Memmel (2005 all-around world champion), the team could be a force stronger than one. Chances are, the U.S. team will be made up of a bunch of Olympic rookies, but this crowd is no newcomer to big meets and major success.

6. If Paul Hamm wins another gold medal, will he keep it or give it back?

Gymnast Paul Hamm won the Olympic gold in Athens, but instead of returning home to showers of accolades, he found himself caught in controversy. Many wondered if he should have given his Olympic gold medal back since the International Gymnastics Federation acknowledged it botched the scoring for a South Korean gymnast who would have won the gold without the error. Hamm kept his medal, did the talk-show circuit, performed in shows and retired. In February, he and his twin brother, Morgan, announced they would be back for Beijing. Let's all make this pact: No judging scandals in 2008.

7. Will Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh lose a single set en route to a second Olympic gold medal in beach volleyball?
Doubtful. They didn't lose a single set in seven matches during the 2004 Olympics, and the only thing that seems to have changed for this dynamic duo is that May is now married (she wed Florida Marlins catcher Matt Treanor in November 2004). May-Treanor and Walsh captured their third world title last month without a hitch.

8. Can the United States medal in diving?
At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the U.S. was shut out of the medal podium in diving for the first time in 92 years. Not even 2000 Olympic champion Laura Wilkinson could come to the rescue (she placed fifth in Athens). On the flip side, the Chinese won six of the eight diving gold medals. Another quick reminder for where the 2008 Olympics will be held? Oh yeah, Beijing.

9. Will Sheila Taormina compete in three different Olympic sports?
Very possible. Taormina has already competed in three Olympics in two different sports -- swimming and triathlon. She even won a gold medal as part of the 800 free relay in 1996. Next year, at age 39, she will try to represent the United States in the modern pentathlon, an event introduced for women in 2000 in Sydney. Athletes compete in five events in one day: pistol shooting, epee fencing, swimming, equestrian show jumping and cross-country running. Even if Taormina finishes dead last, she'll make the record books. No athlete has ever competed in three Olympic sports.

10. How fast will Tyson Gay go?
Put it this way: Michael Johnson will be watching. Gay, who won the double (the 100- and 200-meter events) at the U.S. Championships earlier this summer, is closing in on Johnson's world record in the 200. At nationals, Gay finished the event in 19.62 seconds, making him the second-fastest of all time. Johnson set his world record of 19.32 at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.