BEIJING (Reuters) - Having completed the long road to China, American swimmer Michael Phelps is now preparing to tackle the final steps to sporting immortality.
Phelps’ journey to Olympic greatness began in Athens four years ago when he won six gold medals but he has his sights set on eight in Beijing.
If successful, he will break Mark Spitz’s record of winning seven golds at a single Olympics, set in Munich in 1972, but even if he wins half his races, he will still become the most prolific gold medalist of all time.
It would be a staggering achievement and although the odds are stacked against him winning the lot, no-one is prepared to dismiss his chances.
“I’ve seen him do some of the most amazing things,” said Eddie Reese, the head coach of the U.S. men’s team. “I would safely say I would never bet against him.”
Phelps has been desperately trying to talk down his prospects but has failed miserably in trying to keep a lid on all the hype.
The International Olympic Committee agreed to switch the swimming finals from evenings to mornings so that his races could be seen live on American television in prime time and his arrival in Beijing was the sort of reception normally given to pop stars.
“The biggest advantage he has now is that he’s been through the process before,” his personal coach Bob Bowman said.
“So he knew what to expect and he’s handled all of the other things that come with the Olympic Games better.”
While Phelps has hogged the headlines, he is not the only swimmer striving for a place among the sport’s greats in Beijing.
His team mate Katie Hoff has also entered five individual events and is a candidate for the relays as she eyes Kristin Otto’s record of six swimming golds, won in Seoul in 1988.
Hoff was so overcome with nerves at Athens in 2004 that she vomited on the pool deck but said she is ready to cope with everything that comes her way this time.
“I don’t feel scared anymore, or like the world is swirling around,” she said. “I‘m a hundred times better now.”
Australia’s Grant Hackett and Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands are both bidding to become the first male swimmers to win the same individual event at three Olympics.
Hackett, the undisputed king of long-distance swimming, is chasing a hat-trick of titles in the 1500 freestyle while van den Hoogenband is eyeing a third success in the 100 freestyle, despite losing his world record to Frenchman Alain Bernard.
“Sydney was tough, Athens was extremely tough and this will probably be harder again,” Hackett said. “But I‘m prepared to go to the well one more time and dig as deep as I can.”
Van den Hoogenband also won the 200 in Sydney and claimed silver in Athens but pulled out of the event in Beijing, where he was due to race Phelps, to concentrate on the 100, which is looming as the race.
“My love for the 100 freestyle is that big that unfortunately I am forced to adjust my ambitions,” he said. “I am no longer the young god of Sydney 2000. I am someone in his 30s, who has to use his resources sparingly.”
The U.S. and Australia, swimming’s traditional rivals, are again certain to dominate events in Beijing with both teams flexing their muscles by parading their dazzling lineups of world record holders.
For all the speculation about who will win what, there is perhaps only one certainty; Beijing’s space-age “Water Cube” pool will witness the fastest meet of all time.
The build-up to the Games has been dominated by a spate of world records that have coincided with the introduction of a controversial space-age bodysuit and given the manufacturers almost as much newspaper space as Phelps.
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)
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