He emerged from behind a wall at the Long Beach Aquatic Center, resplendent in a red, white and blue robe marked with "Everlast" across the back, looking every bit like swimming's version of Apollo Creed.

At the starting block, he dropped the robe to reveal matching boxer's trunks. And when his name was called -- the booming voice of the public address announcer bellowing "Gary . . . Hall . . . Junior!" -- he didn't exactly shy away. Rather, he flexed his biceps, showing the world, not to mention his seven competitors in the 50-meter freestyle, that he was ready for a fight.

Hall has plenty of ideas of how to market swimming to the masses.

Tuesday night, he tried to do it all by himself by combining showmanship with performance. Say what you want, but he backed it all up, winning his signature event at the U.S. Olympic trials, the 50-meter freestyle, in 21.91 seconds, barely out-touching rival Jason Lezak, who two days earlier had beaten Hall in the 100-meter freestyle. Now, though, Hall is both the fastest -- and most colorful -- sprinter in the country.

"I like to swim fast," he said. "As far as being the most colorful, that's a compliment, I guess. I'm having a good time."

With the swim, Hall -- who won the gold in 2000 in Sydney -- re-established himself as a real medal threat next month in Athens. For the gold, he will have to beat not only Lezak, who touched second in 22.05, but likely his chief adversary, world record holder Alexander Popov of Russia. With his signature bravado, Hall sounded as if he was ready for all comers.

"I think I can be faster in Athens," he said. "I know that I can be better."

With Michael Phelps's successful and historic run to qualify for six individual events coming to a close Tuesday night, Hall was happy to jump into what was left of the spotlight. After a few shaky starts over the course of the meet, he was just about even with Lezak when they hit the water out of the blocks. By the midway point, he had the lead. By the final 10 meters, Hall looked in control. Yet when they reached for the wall -- well, the difference was hardly perceptible.

"It looked like we touched together," Lezak said.

From Hall's perspective, he won by not falling behind at the start.

"I knew once I was in the water," he said, "I could outswim them."

So he did, and when he was done, he sprang from the pool onto the starting block and took a deep, proud bow. Though he had already secured his third trip to the Olympics by finishing second in the 100 free, he will now go with even more confidence.

On the penultimate night of the trials, however, another of America's longtime swimming heroes perhaps touched the wall for the final time in competition. Brooke Bennett, the only woman to win two individual swimming gold medals in Sydney, had her last chance in the 800 freestyle.

Bennett was game, swimming courageously despite the toll of shoulder surgeries that have set her back since 2000. But over the final 100 meters, Bennett, who had hoped to become the only three-time gold medalist in the 800, was no match for Diana Munz and Kalyn Keller. Munz, who earlier in the meet had disappointingly failed to qualify in the 400 free, won in 8 minutes 26.06 seconds, with Keller second in 8:26.33.

When Bennett's head emerged from the water after she touched third in 8:29.39, she didn't cry. Instead, she smiled.

"I think she's ready to move on," said her coach, Peter Banks. "If that was the last moment, she was going to enjoy it."

Fourth in that event, just behind Bennett, was 16-year-old Kate Ziegler of Great Falls. Ziegler, who will be a junior at O'Connell in the fall, was making her first appearance at the trials, and was a factor, threatening to slip in should one of the favorites falter. She was well aware of her competition.

"I would love to, some day, be anywhere near" Bennett's accomplishments, Ziegler said. "But I'm really pleased. I had fun."

Earlier, Margaret Hoelzer of Huntsville, Ala., qualified for her first Olympics by winning the 200-meter backstroke in 2:11.88, nearly a second ahead of runner-up Kristen Caverly. Both swimmers overcame a fast start from third-place Hayley McGregory, sweeping past her onto the Olympic team.

"It still hasn't sunk in yet," Hoelzer said.

After his award ceremony, Hall made certain that he soaked in the moment.

Back in his robe and shorts, he carried his bouquet of flowers around the pool deck, shaking hands with the crowd. Lezak, whose mild sparring with Hall makes for a good subplot headed to Athens, tried not to notice.

"I am real focused on what I'm doing, and not on anybody else," Lezak said. "I don't look to stare anybody down."

An hour after he was finished, Hall started two more campaigns. He reiterated his desire to be named captain of the men's team in Athens. And with his father, three-time Olympian Gary Hall Sr., looking on, he showed there is some sentiment with the swagger.

"You know what I really want to do?" he said. "I want to carry the flag for the United States in the Opening Ceremonies at the Olympic Games. My father was able to do that in 1976, and I think that was his crowning achievement as an athlete and as an Olympian. It was his third Olympic Games.

"This is my third Olympic Games. It would mean an awful lot to me."

Gary Hall, acting like swimming's version of Apollo Creed of "Rocky" fame, plays to crowd after winning 50-meter freestyle showdown against Jason Lezak in U.S. Olympic trials.