Michael Phelps might have to be perfect in Athens if he wants to match Mark Spitz's seven gold medals in one Olympic Games.
After opting out of the 200 backstroke at the end of U.S. trials, Phelps got word this week that he might be left off the 4x100 freestyle relay team in Greece. That would leave seven events on his schedule and no hope of breaking Spitz's record.
In a hotel conference room in Stanford, Calif., U.S. swim coach Eddie Reese announced to his team that the bottom four of the top six qualifiers in the 100 freestyle will all have a chance to earn one of the two remaining spots in the 4x100 free relay. Those four -- Gary Hall Jr., Neil Walker, Nate Dusing, and Gabe Woodward -- will swim the morning of the final on Aug. 15. Phelps, who didn't swim the 100-free in trials, will not.
Reese will then meet over lunch with the three other U.S. coaches and pick the two freestyle swimmers to advance to the final along with top qualifiers Jason Lezak and Ian Crocker.
"We have four guys that are swimming in the prelims," Reese said. "If we have all four go very fast, it'd be hard for Michael to be on that relay."
Reese defines "very fast" as "in the 48-low range." In other words, if any two of the four swim well under 48.5 seconds, they will get the nod and Phelps will sit the day out.
So what are the chances of that? Among the Americans, only Lezak has swam the 100 free faster than 49 seconds this year. He went 48.17 at U.S. trials. (Dutch swimmer Pieter van den Hoogenband, who won gold in Sydney, has the world record with 47:84.) Phelps has America's second-fastest time this year, at 49.05. He's followed closely by Crocker with 49.06, then Hall at 49:16, Dusing at 49:40, and Woodward at 49:45.
Relay times tend to be faster, but all four prelim swimmers will have to cut a full second off their year-best times to keep Phelps out of the final.
"He's pretty much a guaranteed 48-something when the relay starts," Crocker said, "so everyone would have to be 48.5 or better. Which is if everybody swims out of their mind, basically."
Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, did not return phone calls. But Crocker said Phelps took the news without any visible concern.
"On the one hand," Crocker said, "it's an opportunity for Michael to get a medal. On the other hand, we want to put the best team out there. And why waste his energy?"
Eric Adelson is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.