With gold, Phelps starts strong

ATHENS — As Michael Phelps prepared to warm up in the practice pool at the Olympic Aquatic Centre yesterday morning, Elvis Presley blared on a nearby loudspeaker.

The King asked for "a little less conversation" and a "little more action," and the much-hyped Phelps delivered, giving the United States its first gold medal of the Athens Olympics and breaking his own world record in the 400-meter individual medley.Since making history at the last year's world championships, Phelps - who has a shot at surpassing Mark Spitz's seven-gold-medal showing in 1972 - had been the primary source of Olympic attention that didn't involve security or doping.

The outcome was predictable, the celebration that followed a jumble of emotions.

Phelps' joy was compounded by teammate Erik Vendt's late surge, earning him second straight silver in the race, and there was relief that Phelps' quest was off to such a solid start.

"I've got one event down and six to go," Phelps said moments after he climbed out of the pool. "I'm a little less nervous, now that I've got that one off my shoulders."

Phelps is the first man to attempt to swim five individual events at the Olympics. He could also be the first to compete in eight overall, but that milestone will be in jeopardy today.

Phelps was to learn early this morning whether he would swim in the final of tonight's 400 freestyle relay. He could be bumped from that foursome by two men who go extremely fast in this morning's preliminaries.

Whatever the outcome, he will still have a daunting day.

Today brings the first two rounds of the 200 freestyle, where he is crashing a field that includes defending champion Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands and Australia's Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett. The two Aussies went 1-2 in the 400 freestyle final last night.

Thorpe was more than three seconds off his world record. The standard in the 400 IM was 4 minutes, 11.76 seconds before Phelps came along. He dropped the mark for the fifth time last night, as he won by two body lengths, in 4:08.26.

Swimmers competing this weekend passed on the opening ceremony. Phelps didn't even watch Friday night's pageant. He said he fell asleep about 9:30 p.m. to Miracle, the movie about the 1980 American ice hockey team that upset the Soviets.

The preliminaries of the 400 IM opened the Olympic swim program. As Phelps returned to the athletes' village, 15-year-old Katie Hoff, another product of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, failed to advance as expected out of the heats in the women's 400 IM.

Eight hours later, Phelps strode onto the pool deck with his ubiquitous Walkman headphones, playing the same Eminem song he rode to an unprecedented five world records in Barcelona last July.

He looked as if he was ready to burst out of his skin as the public address announcer introduced the eight finalists, first in French, then in English. The cheer for Ioannis Kokkodis, a Greek in Lane 2, was nearly as loud as the one that greeted Phelps' name.

Phelps is among the best in the world in the butterfly and backstroke, the first two legs of the IM. He had a 3.48-second lead at the midway mark. Vendt and Hungary's Laszlo Cseh closed some in the breaststroke, but Phelps didn't relent in the freestyle.

After the finish, he saw his time on the scoreboard and broke into a wide grin. Phelps placed his hands on his swim cap and pumped his left fist.

Vendt was the seventh seed after a shaky morning swim, stuck in Lane 1, and he dived over three lane markers to hug his teammate.

"I looked up at the scoreboard and just went nuts," Phelps said.

Vendt raised Phelps' hand in triumph.

Phelps became the 400 IM's dominant figure at the 2002 Summer Nationals, when both he and Vendt broke the existing world record.

After an injury, Vendt nearly missed the Games.

"This is a dream come true for me," Phelps said, "ever since I was a little kid, every single day of waking up and hoping to win an Olympic gold medal. It means more with him [Vendt] getting second."

Phelps nearly teared up at the start of the medal ceremony, which included attendants in traditional Greek garb.

"That was one of the more emotional swims I've ever had," he said.

An IOC official from Kuwait draped the gold medal over Phelps and placed an olive wreath on his head. As a national anthem heavy on the strings played, Phelps placed his wreath over his heart.

"When you're at a sporting event," Phelps said, "and you hear the national anthem, you take your hat off."

Phelps kept the world press waiting while he completed his warm-down. He faced questions for 18 minutes and met some of his biggest fans near the practice pool, where he spoke to his mother through a fence.

"I got to hold both of his hands in mine," said Debbie Phelps. "That was a wonderful night."

A crowd of 10,500 included several thousand athletes, officials and Fred Phelps, Michael's father.

According to Phelps' coach, they haven't seen anything yet.

"Michael won in a good way," Bob Bowman said.

"He broke the world record without taking too much out of the tank. He'll be in good condition for the 200 free. He can go faster than that."