LONG BEACH, Calif. - As Apollo astronauts climbed into outer space, sections of their craft would be jettisoned.
When Michael Phelps returned to dry land at the end of the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, he tossed his baseball cap, goggles and a second-place medal into the stands.
Back at his hotel Monday night, he continued to lighten his load, predictably dropping one of the six individual events in which he qualified to swim next month in the Athens Olympics.
"I don't know if it was easy or hard," Phelps said after sleeping on the matter and then officially withdrawing from the 200-meter backstroke, "but it was the right decision."
No one debated that, but it was taxing to think straight after racing more than two miles over seven days and putting in 40 more in the practice pool, in which he could be found yesterday morning, working on his starts, trying to make up the tenths of seconds that could turn him into an Olympic legend.
Today, Phelps is scheduled to be on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. He missed last night's closing ceremonies to attend a taping of the ESPYs. At midday yesterday, he fulfilled the goal of your average 19-year-old American male, getting up close and personal with supermodel Cindy Crawford, albeit at a news conference at which she introduced him as a fellow "ambassador" for Omega watches.
That photo opportunity was the stage on which Phelps formally announced his individual Olympic program. Four hours earlier, he explained to The Sun the thought process that still has him on pace to win an unprecedented eight medals, if not match the seven golds won by Mark Spitz.
Phelps reiterated his desire to be on all three relay teams, and U.S. coach Eddie Reese is all for it. At a minimum, that would mean three more races in Athens, Greece, and something had to give.
Three rounds of the 200 backstroke and an uphill climb after Aaron Peirsol were dumped, avoiding an Aug. 19 repeat of Monday night's logjam when Phelps finished second in the 200 backstroke, reminded everyone that he is near invincible in the 200 individual medley and came back for a semifinal in the 100 butterfly.
Over the next five weeks, he'll focus on his start and turns in the shortest race on his program, the 100 butterfly, where Ian Crocker has the edge. The gold medalist is pretty much a lock to be on the top of the podium for the 400 medley relay medal ceremony, a bit of Aug. 21 pomp that is literally the final item on the eight-day Olympic swim program.
The U.S. medley relay team is as big a favorite as Phelps is in the two individual medleys and 200 butterfly. He figures to become only the second man ever to win more than two individual golds, and the 200 backstroke simply jeopardized too much in a program that could see him race 17 times over eight days.
He did that many in seven here, but paid the price.
"I would not be able to forgive myself," his coach, Bob Bowman, said, "if I raced him into the ground and someone slipped up in the 200 IM and beat him."
Bowman got an emphatic "no" when he asked Phelps if he also wanted to drop the 200 freestyle and go in just four individual events. That's what Mark Spitz did in 1972, when he posted his seven gold medals, a financial incentive for Phelps.
If the fans here thought the Crocker-Phelps showdown was big, the 200 freestyle in Athens is shaping up as an Olympic epic, what NBC analyst Rowdy Gaines called "The Race of the Century."
Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands shocked Ian Thorpe and the host nation by taking gold at the Sydney Olympics. Thorpe came back the next year with his fifth and sixth world records at the distance, but he hasn't approached his pinnacle of 1:44.06 since.
Fellow Australian Grant Hackett remains focused on the 1,500, but he has also gone faster than Phelps' American record of 1:45.99.
"This will be the only time I get to go head to head in the 200 freestyle with Thorpe," Phelps told The Sun.
To match Spitz, Phelps would probably have to beat Thorpe, and nothing motivates him more than the Aussies.
Before the 2003 world championships, veteran coach Don Talbot claimed Phelps hadn't proven himself internationally. Phelps didn't like it when Kieran Perkins, an Australian hero in the 1,500, countered that some of his comments were disrespectful of Thorpe.
Phelps wasn't talking any trash yesterday, but Bowman did, predicting an American victory in the 800 relay. That was before he was officially announced as one of the three American men's assistant coaches.
He and Phelps will head tomorrow to Stanford University, where North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammate Katie Hoff and 40 others will join him at a U.S. training camp. Happiest of the bunch was Bryce Hunt of Auburn Aquatics, the third-place finisher in the 200 backstroke who gets Phelps' spot.
Thorpe dropped a challenge to Phelps in the 200 IM to protect his freestyle turf. Phelps pushed Peirsol and Crocker to world records, but now he needs to push back.
"He will get faster," Reese said.
Let the mind games begin.
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