To this point, Michael Phelps's quest to make the Olympic team in six individual events has engendered support and awe in the swimming community.
Now, though, comes the part that could be a bit dicey. One event in which Phelps excels -- but did not take part in at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials -- is the 100-meter freestyle. The top four finishers in the event Sunday -- Jason Lezak, Ian Crocker, Gary Hall Jr. and Neil Walker -- automatically qualify to be on the 400-meter freestyle relay team at the Olympics.
There is, however, a catch. The relay team can change between the preliminary heat and the finals, and anyone who qualifies for the Olympic team -- in any event -- is eligible to swim. So the question being debated Monday at the trials was: Should Phelps be allowed to swim a leg on the 400 relay -- and thus, go for another gold -- even though he didn't swim the 100 freestyle at the trials?
Hall, who will be making his third trip to the Olympics, said it should take "extraordinary circumstances" for Phelps to take someone else's place.
"If somebody swims the 100 free and earns a spot on that relay, we're talking about a lifetime of work," Hall said. "I'm really supportive of Michael and his goals, and I want to see him swim fast. I want to see the relay win the gold. But I think it's only fair that the individual that swam it and earned his place on that team [gets] a chance to swim in the Olympics."
Phelps's best time this year in the 100 free is 49.05 seconds, set in February, which would have placed him second behind Lezak at this meet. "That, to me, holds up pretty well," said Bob Bowman, Phelps's coach. There has been some talk, though, that in order to prove he belongs on the team, Phelps should swim a "time trial" -- a race alone against the clock -- and be forced to post a time that would have qualified him for the team.
"The time he did four months ago means nothing," Lezak said. "It's all about where you're at at this particular time, and I think the coaches will demand a time trial. They're not going to just roll over and put him on there because they're getting pressure from everybody [because of Phelps's pursuit of] all the medals."
The official decision rests with U.S. men's coach Eddie Reese. Asked Monday if he would consider Phelps for the 400 relay, Reese said, "He's got a real good shot." Asked whether Phelps would need to swim a time trial to prove he belongs, Reese twice said, "He doesn't in my mind." Reese appears willing to use Walker in the morning preliminary of the relay, but come back with Phelps in the final at night.
"Ultimately, they all want to be on the relay at night," Reese said. "My goal is to win the relay at night, and I'm going to do that any way I can."
For his part, Walker said he understands the dilemma.
"It's not about being fair," Walker said. "It's about being fast."
The issue is particularly sensitive because the United States lost the 400 relay at the 2000 Games in Sydney, the first loss for the Americans since the race became an Olympic event in 1964. The Australians will almost certainly have three of the four members of that team -- superstar Ian Thorpe, Ashley Callus and Michael Klim -- back to try to defend the title.
"We've struggled with our relays since then," Reese said, "and the relays are the strength of your country's swimming. They're the depth. . . . They're just really important to get right and be the fastest four people at night."
Sandeno Highly Qualified
Quietly, the star of the meet on the women's side has been Kaitlin Sandeno, who has qualified for the Olympics in four events -- winning the 400 freestyle, taking second in the 400 individual medley and the 200 butterfly, and placing third in the 200 free, meaning she earned a place on the 800 relay team. With that all in the bag, Sandeno decided to swim one more event -- the 800 freestyle -- Monday. She was fourth fastest in the morning preliminaries, and will swim the final Tuesday night. "I didn't really come into the trials saying I'm going to qualify in five events," she said. "I just wanted to be in at least one, and it just kind of seems like the ball's moving." . . .
Misty Hyman, who in 2000 stunned heavy favorite Susie O'Neill of Australia to win gold in the 200 butterfly, succumbed to shoulder problems and failed to make the team. Hyman finished sixth in that event at the trials.