Two Olympic gold medalists likely will square off tonight in what could be one of the most compelling, and perhaps competitive, races of a two-day World Cup swimming meet that has drawn 300 entrants from 38 nations to the University of Maryland.

If this morning's qualifying goes as planned, one lane for the women's 50-meter freestyle final will be occupied by Jenny Thompson, a six-time Olympic medalist and multiple world record holder who is widely considered the world's best female swimmer. Another lane will be occupied by Thompson's training partner, Dara Torres, a four-time Olympic medalist who hopes to become the first American swimmer to compete in four Olympic Games at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

Thompson and Torres have just about everything in common--except what they have been doing since the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. Thompson has been one of the world's most consistent elite swimmers. Torres, who competed in the 1984, 1988 and 1992 Games, did not swim a lap for seven years before last June.

Even Torres hardly can believe she is entered in four races here, the first stop on a 12-city international tour. (Each of the 17 men's and 17 women's races here carries a $500 first prize and World Cup points for the top finishers.)

Thompson's last international race occurred in August and ended with her breaking Mary T. Meagher's revered 18-year-old world record in the 100-meter butterfly. Last spring, one of Torres' friends suggested she try to return for the 2000 Olympics.

"What are you, nuts?" Torres recalled responding. "I haven't been swimming in seven years and I'm 32. No way."

Instead of swimming, Torres had been enjoying a successful media career: She appeared in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue, served as a spokeswoman for Tae-Bo workout videos (it's an activity similar to kick boxing), did television commentary for several networks and served as the host of a short-lived science and technology show on the Discovery Channel.

When Torres attended a national championship swim meet in Long Island, N.Y., this past March, she recalled being put off by the smell of chlorine.

Two months later, however, the idea of a comeback was planted in her head by a persistent friend. Unable to shake the notion, Torres found herself leaving a voice-mail message for Stanford Coach Richard Quick, who also coaches Thompson and will lead the 2000 U.S. Olympic women's team. Torres said yesterday that part of her hoped Quick would respond negatively so she could put the crazy idea to rest.

Quick, however, displayed interest.

Torres was on a plane to Palo Alto, Calif., shortly thereafter, before she had even found an apartment. Torres, who describers herself as intensely competitive and extremely impetuous, moved in briefly with Thompson. The 26-year-old winner of 23 national titles, Thompson was elated to have an experienced training partner. Of the 16 swimmers under Quick at the time, 13 were college students.

"I wouldn't have accepted Dara if Jenny hadn't been in favor of the idea," Quick said. "Before I could get the words out of my mouth, Jenny said: 'That would be great to have her.' "

Said Thompson: "I thought it would be great to have another workout partner who would be really intense and motivated."

For Torres, training with Thompson was a dream.

"Who wouldn't want to train with the best in the world?" Torres said. "She was my total inspiration."

Since July, Torres and Thompson have shared workout routines and a fitness instructor. They are sharing a hotel room this week in College Park, and each possesses the same goal for next summer: to win her first Olympic gold medal in an individual event. For all of Thompson's success, she has come up short in that category.

Yet Thompson has shown a remarkable consistency since her first Olympics in 1992, when she won a silver medal in the 100-meter freestyle and two golds in relay events. In 1992, she set her first world record in the 100 freestyle during the Olympic trials.

"For somebody to break a world record in 1992, and still be at the top of the world in 1999 . . . that is extraordinary," Quick said.

Quick is almost as impressed with Torres, with whom he has been working to sharpen her technique. Active for years in a variety of activities from Tae-Bo to recreational basketball, Torres arrived at Stanford in decent physical condition. She has made up for lost time rapidly. In her only competition this year, a minor meet in Vancouver, B.C.,she posted qualifying times for the Olympic trials and the fourth-best time among the entrants in today's 50-meter freestyle competition.

Thompson also is entered in the 100-meter butterfly and Torres in the 200-meter freestyle, the 50-meter butterfly and the 100-meter freestyle. In the 50 freestyle, the Netherlands' Inge De Bruijn should give both Thompson and Torres a tough race.

"Jenny's all calm and relaxed," Torres said. But "I feel like a little kid at an age-group swim meet."

FINA Swimming World Cup

When: Today and Thursday.

Where: University of Maryland Campus Recreation Center Natatorium, College Park.

Who: Americans Lenny Krayzelburg, Jenny Thompson, Tom Dolan, Dara Torres and Ed Moses, as well as international stars from 38 countries, including China's Chen Yan and Finland's Jani Sievinen.

Tickets: All 800 seats for the 6:30 p.m. finals on both nights are sold out. Tickets ($5 adults, $3 children) still remain for the daily preliminaries at 10:30 a.m. and are available at the meet site.

Today's order of events for preliminaries and finals (all distances in meters): Men's 100 freestyle, women's 200 freestyle, men's 50 breaststroke, women's 100 breaststroke, men's 400 individual medley, women's 100 butterfly, men's 100 backstroke, women's 50 backstroke, men's 200 butterfly, women's 200 individual medley, men's 400 freestyle, women's 50 freestyle, men's 200 breaststroke, women's 800 freestyle, men's 100 individual medley, women's 200 backstroke, men's 50 butterfly.