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Much-anticipated swimming begins Saturday night.

August 09, 2008

BEIJING (AP) -- Head on over to the futuristic-looking Water Cube and wriggle into your high-tech suit Michael Phelps, it's time to hit the pool.

Swimming is perhaps the most highly anticipated sport at the Beijing Games, beginning Saturday night with preliminaries in six events. Yes, that's right, swimmers will qualify in the evening and swim finals in the morning, a change from the traditional Olympic format made to accommodate U.S. television audiences who'll be watching in primetime.

Phelps opens his bid to break Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in one games with the 400-meter individual medley -- the first of five individual events in which he'll be favored. He's the world record-holder, but teammate Ryan Lochte poses a serious challenge. Phelps won the event at the U.S. trials, Lochte was second and both men went under the world mark.

"There's going to be a big battle," Lochte said. "I know what I'm capable of doing and I know what he is. I feel good."

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Phelps and many of the other top swimmers will don a version of the revolutionary suit that has rewritten the record books. Swimmers wearing the suits that can take up to 20 minutes to get into have set 47 of 51 world records this year.

But Markus Rogan of Austria doesn't give all the credit to the suits.

"I tested it. I threw it in the pool and it didn't move at all," he said, "so I'll still have to swim."

Others to watch on Day 1: Katie Hoff vs. Stephanie Rice of Australia in a matchup of current and former world record-holders in the women's 400 IM; defending champion Kosuke Kitajima of Japan and Brendan Hansen renew their rivalry in the 100 breaststroke; and Aussie teammates Libby Trickett and Jess Schipper duel in the 100 butterfly.

The U.S. women swim the 400 freestyle relay prelims Saturday night, then they'll add 41-year-old Dara Torres to the team for Sunday morning's final, where a powerful Netherlands team will be favored. Torres is competing in her fifth Olympics, a record for an American swimmer.

"I used to have kids coming up to me asking for photos and autographs and now I have adults coming up to me at meets saying they've been inspired," she said. "It's been fun having an adult age-group following me and I hope I represent them well."

But the focus will be on Phelps, whose sights are set on bettering Spitz's 36-year-old record and becoming the greatest Olympian ever. The 23-year-old superstar from Baltimore fell short in Athens, winning eight medals, including six golds.

Actually, he needs only four golds at these games to become the first Olympian in history to win 10 such medals.

"It's easier to chase than to be chased," U.S. men's head coach Eddie Reese said. "He has races from his own team, he has races from other teams. He's the one up there at the top of the pyramid and everyone wants to beat him."

Phelps, by no means, has an open lane to history.

Lochte looms later on in the 200 IM and teammate Ian Crocker awaits in the 100 butterfly. In all three relays, Phelps will be relying on his teammates to come through, which didn't happen at last year's world championships in Australia. Crocker's early takeoff got the U.S. disqualified in one prelim, denying Phelps an eighth gold medal in Melbourne. The French pose a threat in the 400 free relay, an event the American men haven't won since 1996.

"When I make goals, they are always challenges," Phelps said. "I look forward to rising to these challenges."

Spitz set world records in all seven of his events at the 1972 Munich Olympics; Phelps broke five world marks at last year's world championships.

Fittingly, Phelps' quest takes place in one of Beijing's coolest venues, the Water Cube.

Known officially as the National Aquatics Center, the Water Cube's design and its translucent, blue-toned outside skin make it look like a cube of bubbles or bubble wrap. The arena located next to the Bird's Nest stadium is swathed in ever-changing colored lights at night.

The outside skin is made of Teflon-like material. A shallow moat surrounds the outside of the 17,000-seat Cube to discourage anyone from touching the skin.

"The whole space makes it feel like something important is going to happen here," Crocker said.

Hoff is the female Phelps, qualifying in five individual races and assuring herself of at least one relay.

The 19-year-old swimmer from the same North Baltimore club that produced Phelps set the world record in the 400 IM at the U.S. trials, nearly four years after she didn't advance to the final as a nervous Olympic rookie in Athens. Hoff took the mark back from Rice, who had lowered it at the Australian trials in March.

"I've grown up doing lots of events," Hoff said. "I'm pretty well prepared. I did the same schedule at the trials, so I'm confident."

Hansen and Kitajima will challenge each other just once in Beijing, after Hansen surprisingly failed to qualify at the U.S. trials in the 200 breaststroke.

They are the two fastest swimmers in the world this year in the 100 breaststroke; Hansen set the world record two years ago. The American lost to Kitajima in Athens, where the Japanese star was accused by American Aaron Peirsol of using an illegal dolphin kick to give himself extra momentum at the start and the turn.

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