Insiders tips on Olympic swimming

Major League Baseball has its World Series every year. The NFL has the Super Bowl. The NHL has the Stanley Cup. College basketball has the Final Four ...

Then there are other sports that have the Olympics as their defining moment every four years. And for fans of swimming like Jim Puleo, the Summer Olympic Games in Athens is their time to party.

Puleo is more than a fan, though. The Carson Tigersharks age group swim club head coach knows exactly what it takes to get to the Olympics - countless hours over years and years - having previously coached Panama's national team as well as other swimmers who have been to the Olympics and world championships. Last month, he watched Lauren Costella represent the Tigersharks at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Long Beach.

Exciting?

"There are going to be some tremendously competitive races," Puleo said.

Simple, but directly to the point.

The one race to watch in Athens is most likely the men's 200-meter freestyle showdown between 19-year-old American Michael Phelps and 21-year-old Australian Ian Thorpe. NBC is scheduled to televise the semifinals on Sunday and the finals on Monday.

The final figures to be a worthwhile watch for any fan.

"You have Michael Phelps, the phenom from North Baltimore, and you have Ian Thorpe, the world record holder from Down Under," Puleo said in his best impersonation of a promoter.

Little promotion is needed because this is one of those duels legends are made of. Phelps will swim five individual events and could be on as many as three relays.

Last month at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Long Beach, Phelps broke his own world record in the 400 individual medley (4:08.41), he won 200 IM, 200 freestyle and 200 butterfly, plus he finished second behind world record performances in the 200 backstroke (Aaron Peirsol) and 100 butterfly (Ian Crocker). Phelps also holds world records in the 200 IM and 200 butterfly.

Thorpe who won three gold and two silver medals at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, has collected a total of 10 world championships and holds the 200 freestyle world record of 1:44.06 set at the 2001 World Championships.

Spitz himself did raise one question. Why would Phelps pass up a chance to swim the 200 backstroke in order to challenge Thorpe in the 200 freestyle?

"So many sports have changed because of what people have done in the past," Phelps told Lisa Dillman of the Los Angeles Times. "If you look at what Michael Jordan has done to basketball, people are still looking at that and what he did changed the sport. ... Hopefully, something I do or something one of the other swimmers do will be able to change the sport for a younger generation."

It promises to be one heckuva race.

Speedo has offered a $1 million bonus if he can win eight gold medals and surpass the seven-gold medal haul Mark Spitz took from Munich in 1972.

"First thing, 32 years ago, Spitz was just doing 100s and 200s (freestyle and butterfly)," Puleo said. "Phelps has to work all four strokes - he will do two butterflies, two IMs and the 200 freestyle - and he will be up against specialists. It's going to be tough, but this kid's a racer."

There will be other quality matchups for swimming fans to watch in Athens.

Gary Hall Jr. of the U.S. will try to mount a challenge in the 50 freestyle against world record holder Alexander Popov of Russia; Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands will try to defend his Olympic title in the 100 freestyle against Jason Lezak of the U.S. and Thorpe; Peirsol will bid for double gold in the 100 and 200 backstroke, as will Brendan Hansen in the 100 and 200 breaststroke; and of course, Phelps is favored for gold in the 200 butterfly as well as both IM events.

In the women's races, American fans will very likely tune in for 15-year-old Katie Hoff, who swims for the same North Baltimore Aquatic Club with Phelps and is a gold medal contender in both the 400 and 200 IM. The youngest member of the U.S. team, Hoff set a Trials record time in the 400 IM and will look to get past world record holder Yana Klochkova of the Ukraine to win Olympic gold. Hoff also won the 200 IM at the Trials, and to win in Athens, she needs to beat three-time Olympian Amanda Beard again.

Beard is also looking for gold in the 100 and 200 breaststroke. She is co-holder of the world record in the 200, but faces a stiff test in the 100 against world record holder Leisel Jones of Australia.

One other American gold medal favorite is 100 backstroke world record holder Natalie Coughlin, who will try to avoid the bad luck that has plagued her in the past. She missed a trip to Sydney in 2000 because of torn cartilage in her shoulder and saw her hopes at the 2003 World Championships dashed by illness.

The 50 and 100 freestyle races shape up as a duel between defending Olympic champion Inge de Bruin of the Netherlands, who will celebrate her 31st birthday on Aug. 24, and Australia's Libby Lenton, who set a world record (53.66) in the 100 earlier this year. Three-time Olympian Petria Thomas, 28, is a gold medal favorite in the 100 and 200 butterfly (she swam a world best 57.36 in the 100 at the Australian Olympic Trials five months ago).

Jenny Thompson, 31, gives America a sentimental favorite in the 100 butterfly as well as the 50 freestyle. She is only the third swimmer ever to qualify for four Olympics and her eight gold medals are the most by any American woman. She also won gold in the 100 fly at the World Championships last year.

But success in the pool is not the only reason Thompson stands as a fan favorite. A past recipient of the Women's Sports Foundation Sportswoman of the Year award (2000), the Stanford graduate (she majored in human biology) is currently working in medical school at Columbia University. Thompson is also known as a class act who is known for helping out younger swimmers and never turns away any autograph seeker.

The Olympic Games? Yes, they are worth the four-year wait

Contact Dave Price at dprice@nevadaappeal.com or call 881-1220.

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