Phelps May Have To Share Spotlight Tonight
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
A simple phrase such as “eat, sleep, and swim” can oftentimes be overlooked in the midst of an extraordinary chase — one like Michael Phelps’s pursuit of an unprecedented eight Olympic gold medals.
But with 17 races over nine days standing between him and his goal, Phelps can’t afford to set his sights very far past his mundane lifestyle at these Beijing games, which he described as “eat, sleep, and swim” to an NBC reporter Saturday night, following the first of what he hopes will be many gold-medal swims.
Having so many eyeballs examining his every move, completing press and sponsorship obligations every day, and (presumably) attending a litany of medal ceremonies, there is quite a number of distractions that could get in Phelps’s way. But his somewhat rudimentary schedule in China, the thinking goes, can help keep his mind on the next activity at hand, whether it’s the simple, like taking a nap, or the historic — like setting another world record.
Tonight, Phelps’s attention turns toward his third of eight opportunities to capture gold when he races in the 200-meter freestyle final. His pursuit of Olympic glory highlights a night of swimming finals that feature two other reigning Olympic champions from America.
Men’s 200-Meter Freestyle Final
Although Phelps is the odds-on favorite to capture gold in this event, it also could present his most daunting challenge of these games. Phelps did not compete in the 100 free in 2004, and his Achilles heel at Athens was the 200 free, in which he finished third. His biggest challenge this year could come from 18-year-old Korean upstart Park Tae-hwan, a bronze medalist in the 100 free at the 2007 World Championships. And if there’s anybody that understands the mountain Phelps is attempting to climb at these games, it’s Hwan, who won seven medals at the 2006 Asian Games. American Peter Vanderkaay is also a threat to ruin Phelps’s run at history. But Phelps still holds the world record in this event, and barring something spectacular, he should come out with another gold medal.
Women’s 100-meter Backstroke
Natalie Coughlin — the most recognizable name in women’s swimming this side of Playboy cover girl Amanda Beard — makes her first splash of the games in her signature event. Coughlin made a statement in the 100 backstroke at the Olympic trials earlier this year, showing the world her extremely competitive nature after watching fellow American Hayley McGregory break her record in a preliminary race. In the very next heat, after her record was broken, Coughlin dove in and took back what was hers just minutes earlier, beating McGregory’s time. In the finals, Coughlin broke the record again, becoming the first woman with a time under 59 seconds. She should get another good race from Zimbabwe’s Kirsty Coventry, who narrowly missed out on the gold medal in 2004, getting out-touched by Coughlin.
Men’s 100-meter Backstroke
Any casual swimming observer has to pity any American swimmer not named Michael Phelps. With everyone fixed on Phelps’s run at history, reigning Olympic champions such as Aaron Piersol have become nothing more than a footnote in swimming lore. But the 100 backstroke is one of the few events in which Phelps can’t steal the spotlight, since it isn’t part of his race itinerary. He probably wouldn’t beat out Piersol anyway, as Piersol won this race at Athens in 2004 and is the current world record holder in the event. A surfer from Newport Beach, Calif., Piersol should cruise to another Olympic gold medal tonight. He does need to be wary of a fellow American and the 2004 Olympic silver medalist in this event, Matthew Grevers.
Women’s 100-meter breaststroke
The 100 breaststroke is the one final of the night in which an American isn’t the favorite to capture gold. Australian Leisel Jones has been dominating breaststroke events since 2005, and her world record of 2:20.54 in the 200 breaststroke is almost two seconds faster than the next-fastest recorded time. The world-record time would even qualify her to compete in that event on the men’s side. But it was the 100 breaststroke final at the 2004 Athens games that still represents the single-biggest disappointment of Jones’s swimming career, when she finished with a demoralizing bronze medal. Jones is a huge celebrity down under, so the pressure will be immense as she tries to wipe away the memories of Athens. A duo of Americans, Rebecca Soni and Megan Jendrick, are the primary threats to sneak away with gold if Jones falters again.