Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin, America's top swimming prospects for the Athens Olympics, easily won their events at the Santa Clara (Calif.) international meet last night.

Phelps slipped off the starting block in the 400-meter individual medley, so instead of diving, he entered the water on "all fours, face down."

"It's probably the slowest way possible to enter the water," he said, smiling. "I've never slipped off the block like that. I'm glad it happened here and not six weeks from now."

Phelps, of North Baltimore, quickly joined the leaders on an overcast evening when temperatures dipped to the low sixties. He led by three body lengths at the halfway point and won in a meet record 4 minutes 14.98 seconds. It was considerably slower than his world record of 4:09.09.

Erik Vendt chased Phelps most of the way and finished second in 4:17.23. Vendt was the silver medalist in Sydney.

Phelps and Coughlin are still in heavy training for the U.S. Olympic trials in July in Long Beach, Calif., so they are not aiming for best times during the four-day meet in Santa Clara's outdoor pool.

Phelps is expected to swim a full schedule of events in Athens in pursuit of Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in one Olympics.

"I'm where I want to be right now," he said. "I'm feeling pretty confident."

Coughlin won the 100 freestyle for the third consecutive year in 54.77, breaking her own meet record of 54.93 set two years ago. Her time was well off her American record of 53.99 set in 2002.

Mueller Out

Two-time Olympic medalist Xeno Mueller abruptly abandoned his attempt to make the U.S. Olympic rowing team, citing safety concerns as a major reason.

"When you have three children and a wife and you leave them, then leave them again to go overseas, and you see somebody's head getting cut off . . . you start having clouds in your head for why you want to proceed like this, with all the responsibility about traveling, leaving the family, et cetera," Mueller said.

"The news on TV being depressing, you put the whole thing, the bigger picture in question. I had my doubts about traveling to Europe already."

Mueller, 31, announced his decision just prior to the start of the U.S. Non-Qualified Olympic Small Boat Trials.

Mueller, who won a gold medal in 1996 and a silver in 2000 while competing for Switzerland, had retired in 2002 after competing at the Swiss national championships.

He decided to try out for the U.S. Olympic team after becoming an American citizen in March, and won the National Selection Regatta I in early April.