When Michael Phelps stands at the starting block before his first event Saturday, he will adjust his goggles, stretch his legs and stare straight ahead, as usual, existing in that psychic, solitary place where he awaits the start of every race.
But as Maryland's 19-year-old swimming star embarks on his crusade for eight Olympic gold medals, he might want to sneak a cosmic peek in each event at the athletes in the other lanes.
Some will be familiar: Teammate Ian Crocker, 21, in the 100-meter butterfly. Famed Australians Ian Thorpe, 21, and Grant Hackett, 24, and Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband, 26, in the 200 freestyle.
But Phelps will face still other athletes, swimmers with first names such as Laszlo, Pawel, Igor and Andriy, from places such as Hungary, Poland, Russia and Ukraine. Some of them are little known in Phelps's camp, but all of them are eager to take him down.
Every Olympics, says U.S. men's swimming team coach Eddie Reese, there is a good percentage of tragic upsets and stunning, unexpected victories, and there will be this time, too. Part of Phelps's work will be in some, or all, of the three relays. But there are adversaries in each of his five individual races who would be happy to get to the wall before the teenager from Baltimore County.
Phelps's first race is the 400 individual medley on Saturday, an event in which the swimmers use all four strokes. He holds the world record of 4 minutes 8.41 seconds, which he set in spectacular fashion on July 7, the first night of the U.S. Olympic trials in Long Beach, Calif. It was the fourth time he had broken the record in two years.
His closest competitor is Laszlo Cseh, 18, of Hungary, one of the few opponents younger than Phelps. But Cseh, entered in the race with a qualifying time of 4:10.79, reportedly had a broken bone in his foot surgically repaired with pins last month. Even before that, Cseh's time was over two seconds slower than Phelps's, and one veteran coach from a third country said last week that Phelps probably had the race "in the bag."
Italy's Alessio Boggiatto, 23, who qualified third, is more than a second shy of Cseh, and American Erik Vendt, also 23, and the fourth-place qualifier, is almost two seconds slower than Boggiatto.
Phelps's next big contest will be in the 200 freestyle, an event in which he qualified third and in which his best time of 1:45.99 is almost two seconds slower than world record holder Thorpe's 1:44.06. Phelps's coach, Bob Bowman, has described his swimmer as an overwhelming underdog in the race.
Hackett and van den Hoogenband have both held the record and both have better times than Phelps. But Phelps wanted in on the race, saying it could be historic, and when he was asked last week how he could make up the gap, he said cheerily: anything's possible.
The heats and semifinals are Sunday, and the final is Monday.
Monday also will see the start of the Phelps's third individual event, the 200 butterfly, another in which he holds the world record. His record time of 1:53.93 is just under a second better than the 1:54.70 of second-place qualifier Franck Esposito, 33, of France.
Tom Malchow, who turns 28 on Wednesday and is one of the captains of the U.S. swim team, qualified third in the event in 1:55.24. But Malchow, who lost the world record to Phelps four years ago, suffered a torn shoulder tendon in May and is not at full strength.
Pawel Korzeniowski, 19, of Poland, qualified fourth with a time of 1:56.11. He has said his ambition in life is to win an Olympic gold medal. His idol is Phelps. The 200 butterfly final is Tuesday night.
Phelps's next contest is the 200 individual medley, the third event in which he holds the world record. Bowman, who also is an assistant on the U.S. team, said this is probably Phelps's premier event.
His record of 1:55.94 is almost four seconds better than the second-place qualifier, Ryan Lochte, 20, who made the U.S. team at the trials last month with a time of 1:59.41. Close behind Lochte, though, are George Bovell, 21, of Trinidad and Tobago, at 1:59.46, and Thiago Pereira, 18, of Brazil, at 1:59.48. The 200 IM heats and semifinals are Wednesday; the final is Thursday night.
Phelps's last individual battle likely will be with Crocker in the 100 butterfly, although Andriy Serdinov, 21, of Ukraine, and Igor Marchenko, 29, of Russia, also will be in the mix. Heats and semifinals are Thursday. The final is Friday.
Lost in the hoopla over the titanic 200 freestyle is the 100 butterfly, which could be even better.
Crocker edged Phelps last summer, setting a world record in the process. Phelps beat Crocker in May. Crocker came back and defeated Phelps last month at the trials, setting the world record of 50.76 seconds.
The race is an all-out gallop over two lengths of the pool, and could be the best one-on-one swimming contest of the Olympics.
"Mostly, I just want to go a lot faster than I've ever gone before," Crocker said recently. "If Michael's there next to me, going faster than he's ever gone, then it's going to be a really exciting race."