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High Hopes for US Swimmers at Athens Olympics - 2004-08-12

The United States is expected to once again be a force in swimming at the Olympics.

American swimmers broke six world records at the U.S. Olympic trials last month. It's clear that the United States has the strongest and deepest group of swimmers in the world. It's a good mix of younger athletes and Olympic veterans.

When they held their pre-Olympic news conference here in Athens, most of the focus was on 19-year-old Michael Phelps, who will attempt to equal the record of seven swimming gold medals won by countryman Mark Spitz at the 1972 Munich Olympics. It would be worth a $1 million bonus from one of his sponsors.

Phelps has been featured on national magazine covers like Time and Sports Illustrated and is constantly in demand for interviews. So is he nervous now that he's in Athens and so much is expected of him?

"I think I'm more excited to tell you the truth Walking into the Olympic venues sends a vibe into your system," Phelps said. "And once I got into the pool [for training] I felt even better. I would be satisfied with one gold medal. How many people in the world win an Olympic gold medal? That's a goal of mine and I'm going to shoot for that and try to achieve it."

The toughest event for Phelps will likely be the 200-meter freestyle, where he's expected to face world record hold Ian Thorpe of Australia and defending Olympic champion Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands.

Thorpe has said he thinks it will be impossible for Phelps to win seven gold medals. But Phelps won't hear it.

"I wouldn't say anything is impossible. I think over the past few years I've been able to keep my mind open and keep all options there," he said. "I mean in 1980, people said no one could beat the Russians in hockey, but the USA did it. So I will restate what I said, nothing is impossible and anything can happen."

At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, U.S. swimmers won 33 medals, more than one-third of the American team's total medal haul of 97. Fourteen of them were gold. Australia won 18 swimming medals. Here in Athens, the Dutch, Russians, Italians and Japanese are expected to provide challenges.

But U.S. world record backstroker Aaron Peirsol, says the Americans will be a force.

"I know that even the past five weeks we've done so much better in the water than we did at [the Olympic] trials," he said. "I don't think the trials was conducive for this entire team of what we're going to do at the Olympics. It kind of makes me get chills sometimes, because I know that this team is a team that has so much potential, but it knows how to use it."

Australia's Olympic team doctor has advised athletes competing in the first few days of the Athens Olympics not to march in the opening ceremonies because of the number of hours they will have to be standing. The U.S. swimmers had already decided to skip the opening ceremonies to save energy, as the swimming competition here begins Saturday.