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Man at top sees Phelps within striking distance

The Baltimore Sun

Omaha, Neb. -- And now the race is on. They've leapt from the starting blocks. In one lane, expectations. In another, hope. And in a third, speculation.

Since Michael Phelps left Athens four years ago with six gold medals in his carry-on luggage, the assumption had been that he would earn more at the 2008 Games. But it wasn't until last night that we knew for certain he would even have the chance.

His easy win in the 100-meter butterfly last night locked up his fifth individual win at the U.S. Olympic trials. Mix in the three relay races and Phelps is officially positioned to surpass Mark Spitz's amazing mark of seven gold medals.

Not just great position, in fact. He's in much better position than he was four years ago.

With Phelps' trials program complete - a giant check mark next to each item on his Omaha to-do list - Phelps was more placid than boisterous, more sanguine than boastful.

"This week turned out how I wanted it to," he said last night. "I'm excited. I'm ready for the challenge that lies ahead of me."

And so here we go. In one lane, four years of hard work. In another, 23 years of dreaming. And in another, a record that has stood for 36 years.

For the next month, all of the details, the sport's long history and every single obstacle will be dissected into a million pieces. But why don't we just dive right into the deep end of the pool: Can Phelps do it?

There's only one person in the world who knows what it's like to win seven golds at a single Olympics, so it seems Spitz himself is as good a person to ask as any.

"I would say that he has a great chance of doing it," Spitz says. "Maybe even a better chance [than 2004]."

In fact, from the pool deck to the stands, from the warm-up pool to the media room, that seems to be the consensus at this year's trials. And there are several reasons for such a lofty forecast. Most revolve around how much has changed and progressed since Phelps fell short of Spitz's mark in 2004.

Phelps is 23, a year older than Spitz was in 1972. But age isn't as important as experience. Phelps' performance in 2004 didn't just prepare him for 2008, it also has fueled him.

For example, Phelps finished third in the 200 freestyle four years ago. He left Greece intent on perfecting that race - and he did. Phelps set a world record in the 200 free at the world championships last year. And in Omaha last week, Phelps won easily, posting the third-fastest time in history.

"That is why he will win that event in Beijing," Spitz says, "and that is why now he is even more capable of winning seven or eight gold medals."

Plus, as Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, points out, the 2004 Olympic trials were really a test run for a complex, bulky program that includes so many different races. He was much more comfortable with the schedule at this year's trials and similarly should be more comfortable at this year's Olympics.

While no one knew how Phelps would handle the program four years ago, Bowman said Phelps showed during the past week that he's unflappable. "He's got everything managed very well," Bowman says.

Not only will Phelps be more familiar with his routine, but he's also not fazed by the circus that will surely surround his quest. When he stands on the starting blocks, all that seems to exist is the black line at the bottom of the pool and the wall waiting at the other end.

Spitz says Phelps swims with a "different kind of courage" than Spitz needed.

"I was not chasing seven gold medals," Spitz says. "I was chasing someone named Don Schollander and Jesse Owens, who had four gold medals."

Spitz seems content with the frailty of his achievement. He has come to terms that by the middle of next month, another name might be atop his in the record books.

"I think it is about time that someone else takes the responsibility," he says, "and I am happy to pass the baton."

Phelps completed his week here with a workmanlike attitude. A "pretty decent week," he called it. He was not overly impressed with all his races. He wants to shave time off his 100 fly, he didn't like the third wall of his 200 free and he wants to improve the first half of his 200 fly.

"I know it's going to be harder at the Olympics than it was here," he said.

But that's relative. In fact, taking down Spitz's record won't be easy, but he's better positioned for it than four years ago.

And so the race is on.

In one lane, Michael Phelps. And in the next, history.

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