Athens 2004

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August 14, 2004 6:03 pm

Phelps wins first gold in 400 IM

By Vicki Michaelis

USA TODAY

ATHENS - Michael Phelps has his one Olympic gold medal. Now he takes on Olympic history. Phelps won the 400-meter individual medley on the first day of the Athens Games on Saturday, breaking the world record in the event for the third time this year in the process. He finished in 4:08.26, with Erik Vendt giving the USA a one-two finish in 4:11.81.

When Phelps saw he had won in world-record time, he put his hands to his head and unleashed the widest smile his coach has ever seen.

"I've thought about this every day for my whole entire swimming career," Phelps said. "Standing on the Olympic podium is something I've always wanted to do. It's an amazing feeling."

Last year, Phelps signed his name to a contract with swimming apparel sponsor Speedo that gives him a $1 million bonus if he matches Mark Spitz's 1972 haul of seven Olympic gold medals. But coming into the Games, his mantra was that his only goal was to win one gold medal.

"My gold is right here," he said Saturday, lifting it off his chest. "I'm perfectly happy right now."

Phelps is entered in four more individual events in Athens and is eligible for three relays. Two of his most-watched events begin Sunday, as he swims qualifying heats for a possible showdown with Australian Ian Thorpe in the 200 freestyle and possibly competes in the 4x100 free relay. The question of whether to include Phelps, who didn't swim in the 100 free at the U.S. Olympic trials last month, has been a source of minor controversy on the U.S. team.

No discontent was on display Saturday as Phelps and Vendt celebrated their success in the first event of the Athens swimming competition.

"I could tell Michael was celebrating his world record for 30, 35 seconds," said Vendt, who also finished second to a U.S. teammate, Tom Dolan, in the 400 IM at the 2000 Olympics. "Then he came over to me. It seemed like he was more excited about (the one-two finish) than his own race. That just shows the kind of guy Michael is - he's a team player."

The U.S. men won one other swimming medal Saturday, as Klete Keller repeated as bronze medalist in the 400 free behind Thorpe and second-place finisher Grant Hackett of Australia.

"As a team we have one main goal," Vendt said, "and that's to emerge as the most dominant men's team in Olympic history."

Phelps went to Vendt's room after dinner Friday night "to fire us up," but Vendt already was asleep. Phelps returned to his room and watched part of the movie Miracle, about the U.S. hockey team's upset of Russia at the 1980 Olympics before going to sleep himself. He woke up Saturday morning, he said, more excited about the 400 IM than any race he's ever swum.

"Since I was a little kid I've been waking up every day hoping to win a gold medal," Phelps said.

Asked what his new goal is, now that he has the one gold, Phelps still wouldn't point to the Spitz standard.

"I'm going to swim as fast as I can in other events," he said.

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