World record for Phelps as he begins his gold rush

One down; seven to go. After all of the hype and the expectation, Michael Phelps delivered the first installment of his multi-golden mission in the Athenian Olympic Aquatic Centre last night. With his 6ft 7in armspan, the 19-year-old American cut through the water with shark-like precision in the final of the 400m individual medley. The small fish didn't stand a chance.

One down; seven to go. After all of the hype and the expectation, Michael Phelps delivered the first installment of his multi-golden mission in the Athenian Olympic Aquatic Centre last night. With his 6ft 7in armspan, the 19-year-old American cut through the water with shark-like precision in the final of the 400m individual medley. The small fish didn't stand a chance.

They were cut to shreds as Phelps fought his own race, against the clock. He won that, too, finishing in 4min 8.26sec, 0.15sec inside the world record he had set at the US trials in Long Beach last month. More than three seconds behind in second place, clocking 4:11.81, was the teenager's US team-mate Erik Vendt.

With due respect to the nominal rivals, the hardest battle he fought was holding back the tears while the strains of "Star Spangled Banner" rang around the arena at the victory ceremony. "That's one down," he said later. "I'm less nervous now I've got one gold medal. I've been thinking about this race all day, since the heats this morning.

"I couldn't sleep last night, so I watched a film, Miracle on Ice," he added. The story of the US ice hockey team who famously defeated the Soviet Union in 1980 hardly inspired Phelps, but it did the trick. "I fell asleep," he continued. "One of my team-mates had to come in and switch it off.

"Now I can wake up with an Olympic gold medal. Ever since I was a little kid I've wanted to do that. It's a dream come true." It just so happens that Phelps is a native of Baltimore, where everybody has a hungry heart, according to Bruce Springsteen at least. His personal appetite is for gold and if his touch at the wall happens to be of a Midas variety in at least six more of the remaining seven events he will contest in Athens, subject to relay selections, he will gain a $1m bounty courtesy of Speedo.

Phelps would also stand alongside or above Mark Spitz, the most celebrated amphibian since Aphrodite, in the pantheon of aquatic Olympians. Spitz won seven golds at the Munich Olympics in 1972 and, appropriately enough, was at poolside last night to see his potential successor enjoy a successful send-off on his epic eight-day, 3,300m voyage.

Now 54, Spitz said: "If Michael wins seven gold medals and ties what I did then it would be like I was the first man on the moon and he became the second. If he wins more than seven, then he becomes the first man on Mars." It always was Spitz's lifetime dream to become an astronaut. Not that the Los Angeles stockbroker was anything less than over the moon, as it were, with his own Aladdin's Cave of Olympic gold, a dazzling feat that had the rest of the world scratching their heads. Asked by a Russian coach how he had performed such a feat, Spitz pointed to the less-than-aqua-dynamic moustache he had defiantly grown because one of his coaches in college had ordered him not to.

"I told him it deflected water away from my mouth, allowed my rear end to rise and made me bullet-shaped in the water," Spitz recalled. "The following year every male Russian swimmer had a moustache." For all the talk of Phelps's potential eightsome reel, he may well have to settle for emulating Ian Thorpe's tally of three golds from the Olympic pool in Sydney four years ago. The Aussie icon, though, now has a fourth in his personal collection, having held off his team-mate Grant Hackett in the last 50m of the 400m freestyle final, prevailing by 0.26sec in 3min 43.10sec.

"I now know it's harder to defend an Olympic title than to win one," Thorpe said. "I'd like to thank the people who have made sacrifices for me - Craig Stevens, my coach, my family and friends." Had it not been for the team berth Stevens sacrificed in the event, Thorpe would not have been standing on the top step of the rostrum. In the 400m freestyle heats at the Australian trials in Sydney in April, the Thorpedo famously shot himself in his size 17 feet, overbalancing on his blocks and falling into the pool.

Stevens subsequently made his withdrawal, to concentrate on the 1500m and the 4 x 200m freestyle relay, amid reports that his decision had been prompted by the offer of £25,000 plus a job by Australia's Channel Seven television station.

The job Bill Sweetenham left Australia to take up, as performance director of British Swimming, did not exactly go promisingly when he got his squad into the Olympic arena for the opening session of competition yesterday morning. There was a succession of Britons who failed to progress beyond the heats: Robin Francis and Adrian Turner in the 400m individual medley; Georgina Lee, in the 100m butterfly; and Adam Faulkner and Graeme Smith in the 400m freestyle.

The women's 4 x 100m freestyle quartet, however, adavanced to their final and placed a respectable sixth. And in the men's 100m breaststroke Darren Mew and James Gibson showed medal potential for tonight's final, qualifying as third and joint fifth fastest, respectively, from the semi-finals.

After hitting the Davy Jones depths of an empty locker in Sydney four years ago, gaining one medal of any colour in Athens would be tangible evidence of a Great British swimming revival.

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