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Swimming Medals Up For Grabs at World Championships

The FINA World Aquatics Championships are under way in Montreal, with the swimming pool portion of the event set to begin on Sunday. Jonathan Tannenwald reports for VOA on the state of the American team, which is looking to recapture the success it had at the 2004 Olympics.

Nearly one year ago, the United States Swimming Team won 28 medals at the Summer Olympics in Athens. The World Championship is the first major event since then. USA National Swimming Team Director Everett Uchiyama told VOA Sports that the American team's roster for this meet is a healthy mix of new names and old stars.

"I'd say 75 percent of our men's Olympic team is intact and focusing on 2008 (Beijing), where on the other side 75 percent of our women's team is new and up-and-coming and trying to make their marks over the next three years," he said.

One of the veterans who will be in Montreal is 22-year-old Natalie Coughlin, who won five medals in Athens and set a world record in the women's 800-meter freestyle. Coughlin was not able to train for this event until January due to a broken foot. But that time off allowed her to bask in the glow of her accomplishments at the Olympics, as well as to complete her studies at the University of California-Berkeley.

"That was perfect for me, because I trained so hard in January and I got back into the pool pretty aggressively," she explained. "And I finished school, and I was busy with the post-Olympic whirlwind. It's been different, but I've been having a great time, and I'm focused and I think I'll swim well."

Michael Phelps will be there as well, with memories of his six gold medals from last year still fresh. Phelps has become the face of American swimming since then, earning a number of endorsement contracts and appearing in television commercials. But he admits it has been a bit overwhelming at times.

"I guess the statement that the sky's the limit really is true," he said. "I never thought that by the age of 20 I would have eight Olympic medals, I would be living a dream come true, being a professional athlete, doing something I love, and it's my job. It's everything in one that you get, and growing up I always dreamt about this."

Phelps and his teammates will face a stiff challenge from the other countries competing at the World Championships, especially Russia, Australia and Japan. Uchiyama said China could also be a dark horse, as its teams work towards hosting the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

"The challenge for us is to maintain our status as the number one swimming team in the world, and there are always challengers," he said. "This time it might be the Chinese, but it's still the Russians, the Australians and the Japanese who have had a wonderful past few years."

Nonetheless, Uchiyama said that the Americans have not set any specific goals for next week in terms of medals.

"We've never set a 'medal count' on what we try to accomplish," he said. "We just try to continue to be the best. We ask the kids to put their best foot forward and just try to win as much as they possibly can."

U.S. Swim team director Everett Uchiyama added that if all the competitors are at their best in the World Championships, there will likely be new world records set. This is due in part to the fact that the pool in Montreal is three meters deep, which is more than many of the pools that have hosted major competitions recently.

"I'd be surprised if there wasn't a world record set at the competition just by the nature of the facility and the competition," he said.

The first events in the swimming pool portion of the World Championships will take place on Sunday, on the islands of Montreal's Parc Jean-Drapeau.