Michael Phelps race-by-race preview

Four years have passed since the last Olympics, but the goal remains the same for Michael Phelps; he wants eight gold medals. The only difference is, this time around, he actually has a shot.

For various reasons, eight golds wasn't a realistic expectation for Phelps in Athens. Today, on the eve of the 2008 Olympics, it is. Phelps is a better swimmer than he was four years ago and his toughest race to win has since turned into one of the easiest. Eight gold medals is doable; it's just not probable.

So many things need to happen for Phelps to sweep his races that it's hard to see everything falling into place. The best swimmer in the world is entered in five individual events and, unlike in '04, will be the considerable favorite in each. The three relays, as always, will be the wildcard, as the two freestyle races represent the best chance to derail Phelps on his quest to unseat Mark Spitz as the most decorated athlete at a single Olympic Games.

Some might consider it a failure if Phelps doesn't achieve this goal, which is preposterous. That it's even a possibility is achievement enough.

After the jump are Fourth-Place Medal's projections for each of Michael Phelps' eight Olympic events. (The day listed next to the event is the night the race will be broadcast in the United States.)

400 Individual Medley (Saturday)

Poor Ryan Lochte. The runner-up to Phelps at the U.S. Olympic Trials, Lochte finished just .83 seconds behind his good friend, while posting the second-fastest time ever in the event. Lochte's time of 4:06.08 was more than two seconds faster than Phelps' winning 400 IM time at the Athens Games and slightly faster than the previous WR held by Phelps. Lochte is one of the best swimmers in the world but with Phelps in the picture, he'll likely never get the respect he deserves.

There's a healthy buzz that Lochte could steal this race from Phelps and end the quest for eight golds before it even begins. Don't count on it. Lochte is great, but Phelps hasn't lost this race in six years. Even though Phelps lowered his own world record in Trials by almost a full second and was challenged by Lochte the whole way, you got the sense that he left something in the pool that night. Expect a new world record right off the bat.

Prediction: Gold

4x100 Freestyle Relay (Sunday)

Of the three relays, this could be the one that does in Phelps. The 4x100 freestyle relay has been the most unpredictable event of the past two Olympics and the streak should continue in Beijing.
In Athens, an unheralded South African team that finished last in the Finals of the '03 Worlds shocked the favored U.S. and Dutch teams to steal the gold, thus ending Phelps' chances to eclipse Spitz. After a seven-Olympics winning streak in this relay, the U.S. has lost two in-a-row and will be hard-pressed to reclaim their crown.

The French (?!) enter the Games as the pre-race favorites. Led by 100 freestyle world record holder Alain Bernard, France boasts four of the fastest 15 sprint freestylers in the world. Australia will also put together a formidable team that will hope to improve on a disappointing sixth-place finish in Athens.

The main problem for the U.S. in this race is that they don't have a natural anchor
like the French and Australian teams. Jason Lezak and Garrett Weber-Gale, the top two Americans in this event, are among the fastest freestylers in the world, but they're not in the class of Bernard and Sullivan. (Or Gilbert and Sullivan, for that matter. But, really, who is? Pirates of Penzance is the real deal Holyfield.) Without an anchor, the U.S. will need a sizable lead heading into the final leg.

The relays are the largest hurdles Phelps faces in his run at history, with this one providing the biggest of all. In the individual races, Phelps is in complete control of his destiny. In the relays, he's just one of four men, all of whom share equal responsibility. (Think of Michael Phelps as a pitcher throwing a perfect game and his relay teammates as infielders with the potential to save, or ruin, it.)

This could be the race of Phelps' discontent.

Prediction: Silver

200 Freestyle (Monday)

What a difference four years makes. In Athens, Phelps was an underdog in the so-called "race of the century" which featured the four-fastest 200 freestylers in history. Phelps finished third, but his coach, Bob Bowman, would later say it was his best race of the Olympics.

There should be no such drama this time around. Ian Thorpe is retired, Pieter van den Hoogenband has plateaued and Phelps now holds the world record. What was once his most difficult event to win has now become one of the easiest.

Prediction: Gold

200 Butterfly (Tuesday)

Chinese swimmer Peng Wu finished second to Phelps at the '07 Worlds. That's the best finish he can expect in his home country, as the margin between him and Phelps was a staggering three seconds. Phelps breezes.

Prediction: Gold

Men's 4x200 Freestyle Relay (Tuesday)

Tuesday night (or Wednesday morning) is the only session of the Olympics when Phelps will have to race two finals. The 4x200 freestyle relay starts 52 minutes after Phelps finishes his 200 fly and just nine minutes after the medal ceremony for that event. Luckily for Phelps, there shouldn't be too much competition in this relay. The biggest threat to the Americans in this race will be themselves. Crisp swims and clean relay exchanges should equal a convincing win.

Prediction: Gold

200 Individual Medley (Thursday)

Of the two individual medley races, Lochte might have a better shot of unseating Phelps in the 200. He has closed the gap considerably on Phelps over the past year, but would still need a Herculean performance to earn the top-step on the medal stand. As he did in Trials, Lochte will come close, but not close enough.

Prediction: Gold

100 Butterfly (Friday)

If you watch one swimming race this Olympics, make sure this is the one. Phelps and world record holder Ian Crocker have split their last four meetings in major international competitions, with Phelps winning the '04 Olympic and '07 Worlds by minuscule margins of .04 and .05 seconds, respectively. (Crocker's victories in the '03 and '05 Worlds were a little more decisive.) In each of Phelps' two wins, Crocker appeared to be in control for the entire race, but late-surges by Phelps propelled him to victory both times.

Take a look at the pair's thrilling duel in the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne. Notice how the announcer calls the race for Crocker with ten meters remaining. Billy Packer would be proud.

People seem to be sleeping on Crocker's chances, mainly due to the poor time he put up at Trials (finishing .73 seconds behind Phelps). But Crocker does have one major advantage in this race: freshness. By the time the 100 butterfly finals begin in Beijing on Saturday morning, Michael Phelps will have likely competed in 15 races over seven days. Crocker will only have swum two.
This should be the best race on the men's side. All signs point to Phelps, but for some reason, it feels like Crocker's turn.

Prediction: Silver

4x100 Medley Relay (Saturday)

For all the talk about Phelps going for eight golds, it's not a given that he's even going to swim in eight events. The winner of Friday night's 100 butterfly will represent the U.S. in this relay, which features swimmers in all four disciplines. If Phelps loses to Crocker, the butterfly spot is Crocker's for the taking. In Athens, the opposite happened and Crocker would have been denied the chance to win relay gold, but Phelps stepped aside and gave his spot in the finals to his friend. (Phelps still won a gold for that relay since he swam in the preliminary heats, which is also a possibility here.)

If all goes smoothly, there's no chance that the U.S. will lose this relay; they've won it in every Olympics. But that's a big if. At the '07 Worlds, the aforementioned Mr. Crocker committed a false start in the preliminary round and the U.S. team was disqualified, denying Phelps a chance to win a record eight medals at the competition. They'll be extra-cautious this time around.

Prediction: Gold

Final prediction: Six golds, two silver

Photo via Getty Images

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