Michael Phelps and Ian Thorpe are sure to grab more headlines as the clock ticks down to the 2008 Beijing Games. Beyond those superstars, however, are a group of lesser-known American and Australian swimmers eager to share the spotlight.
The world's two dominant swimming powers displayed some of their upcoming talent at the Short Course World Championships, the Olympic year's last major meet, which ended Monday night.
The Americans got medal-winning performances from such under-21 swimmers as Kaitlin Sandeno (four golds), 15-year-old Katie Hoff (silver), 16-year-old Kate Ziegler (silver), Mary DeScenza (silver), and Margaret Hoelzer (gold).
"I've learned so much and soaked up the atmosphere and it definitely has whetted my appetite," said Ziegler, who made her first U.S. senior national team at this meet. "This is just a steppingstone."
The U.S. men's team was bolstered by a pair of 22-year-olds -- Nick Brunelli and Justin Mortimer -- and 20-year-old Ryan Lochte, all of whom won one gold and one bronze. Lochte also earned a silver.
"My main goal is to start making every national team trip and get my name out there and let people know that I'm here to make the next Olympics and to do well at it," Mortimer said. "I want to go and really make a name for myself."
Mortimer, of Milton, Mass., had a rare opportunity to fill in for Phelps in the 800-meter freestyle relay after the eight-time Olympic medalist withdrew because of a back injury. Mortimer anchored the U.S. team to victory over the Australians.
"I knew I was prepared for it," he said.
Thorpe was one of several Olympians who sat out the meet just six weeks after the Athens Games in order to rest.
Mortimer earned a bronze in the 400 freestyle, bolstering what has been a weak event for the United States in the last decade. He, along with Olympians Klete Keller and Erik Vendt, are currently the best hopes for Olympic medals in the distance events, including the 1,500 free.
Mortimer just missed making the Olympic team, and is undaunted by the prospect of rivals Larsen Jensen, Keller and Vendt staying in the pool through 2008.
"Even if they're still here, I think I can give them a run for their money and I think they're probably going to start getting nervous that I'm sticking around," he said.
Brunelli, Mortimer, Ziegler and DeScenza were among the Americans who got into the 25-meter short course meet after several Olympians stayed home to rest.
"Nick Brunelli has taken full advantage of this. Nobody was more ready to swim, nobody had more enthusiasm than Nick," U.S. men's coach Skip Kenney said. "He has two medals from a world championships, but now he has to dig down deep and make that next step."
The Aussies got medal-winning performances from 19-year-old Lisbeth Lenton, 17-year-old Jessica Schipper and 18-year-old Lara Carroll. Brooke Hanson, who made her first Olympic team at 26, won a record-tying five golds.
"We're a pretty strong young team," Schipper said. "We have lots of youth groups in Australia, so it's pretty exciting."
Jenny Thompson, a four-time Olympian, retired Monday night, ending a career in which she became the most decorated swimmer with 83 international medals.
"All of a sudden, the door's open," U.S. women's coach Pete Malone said. "It will refresh and invigorate a bunch of the young females. They're all going to start seizing the moment and seeing the opportunity."
Thompson coming out of retirement in 2002 had the opposite effect. She was nearly guaranteed one of the top two spots in her events, cutting the opportunity for others in half.
"It's been very intimidating to some of the young females. How do you beat Jenny Thompson? She's folklore," Malone said. "That's not in our best interest. That didn't push us."
Kenney believes Phelps' dominance will affect other swimmers as long as they also figure out ways to improve.
"We have to figure out a way for all of us to raise the bar like he has raised the bar," he said. "It's the most healthy thing unless we don't do it."