OMAHA, Nebraska (Reuters) - Forged from eight days of pressure-packed competition, the powerhouse U.S. Olympic swim team spearheaded by Michael Phelps could leave Beijing as the most successful squad ever assembled.
With only the top two in each event earning Olympic berths, the U.S. trials featured its usual cut-throat battles that produced eight world records and equaled another.
Four swimmers, Phelps, Aaron Peirsol, Natalie Coughlin and Amanda Beard will be back to defend Olympic crowns while 26 others, including youngest member of the squad 15-year-old Elizabeth Beisel will make their Summer Games debuts.
Beard qualified for her fourth Games while Dara Torres, a 41-year-old mother, will take part in her fifth. However there was no room for swimming’s showman Gary Hall Jr.
The 33-year-old’s bid to become the first swimmer to win the same event at three different Olympics began in typical fashion as he shadowboxed his way to the block in a red, white and blue robe only to finish fourth in the 50 meter sprint.
The spotlight, however, belongs to just one swimmer.
Having targeted Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals at a single Olympics in Beijing, Phelps took his first steps by qualifying in eight events (five individual, three relays), providing enough ammunition to attack the mark.
Phelps’s contributions will go along way towards determining if the men’s team can become the greatest ever, eclipsing the squad that won 12 of the 13 gold medals on offer at the 1976 Montreal Games.
“These (U.S. trials) are some of the fastest times I have ever seen swum, as a whole,” said Phelps.
”Three of top five times in the 100 fly, (Ryan) Lochte and I both breaking the record in the 400 IM (individual medley), Lochte and (Aaron) Peirsol with the two fastest performance in the 200 (back), the 100 (back) being the fastest ever swum.
“There are going to be a lot of countries out there who are going to step up because it is an Olympic year but hopefully we can be the best and fastest team ever.”
The U.S. women insist they head to China as underdogs to the powerful Australians but performances and times at the trials indicated the team led by Katie Hoff have closed the gap.
Having been shutout of the medals in Athens as a nervous novice throwing up in the Olympic pool, Hoff has returned a battle-hardened 19-year-old with a five individual and one relay program almost a daring as Phelps‘s.
”I’ve learned I can handle it,“ said Hoff, who was the youngest U.S. athlete at the last games. ”It’s a challenging schedule, mentally and physically.
“Having done it once now it gives me confidence I can do it again.”
(Editing by Padraic Halpin)