LONDON – If Michael Phelps is going to win seven medals here, it will be the hard way.
It will take 14 exhausting swims (qualifiers and finals) across eight days to do so. At age 27, his recovery time is greater than four years earlier in Beijing. He was mentally and physically fried by the end of that meet, and assuredly will be again here.
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Here's how his events break down, in order from hardest to easiest:
1. The 400-meter freestyle relay; Sunday, July 29
Phelps is part of a team here, and although he did not swim the individual 100 free at U.S. Olympic Trials, he will assuredly be part of the American relay in the championship final Sunday night. But it will take heroic performances from him and everyone else on the relay to upset Australia -- and in fact, just getting on the medal podium could be a battle. Prediction: silver.
2. The 400 individual medley; Saturday, July 28
Phelps is the two-time reigning Olympic champion and the current world-record holder, but the competition from American teammate Ryan Lochte will be formidable. Lochte beat Phelps by nearly a second in this event in Omaha, Nebraska, at the Olympic trials, and has been the world leader in this event since Beijing in '08. It should be a scintillating match in the final, but also keep an eye on Hungarian veteran Laszlo Cseh -- a great swimmer doomed to being born in the wrong era. Prediction: silver.
3. The 200 IM; Thursday, Aug. 2
This will be Part 2 of the showdown with Lochte, as the two most versatile swimmers in history go at it for the final time. The advantage here goes to Phelps, since Lochte figures to be coming back roughly 28 minutes after swimming the 200 backstroke final. That grueling double by Lochte helped Phelps win this event at Olympic trials by a scant margin, and it says here he will not be swept by his rival in London. Prediction: gold.
4. The 100 butterfly; Friday, Aug. 3
This will be Phelps's final individual swim of his career, so it's hard to see him losing. Still, the margin for error is very slim going against American teammate Tyler McGill and 2008 upstart Milorad Cavic. Phelps was deeply fatigued by this time of the meet in Beijing, and it took everything he had plus divine intervention to beat Cavic by 0.01 seconds then. Four years later it will be very difficult again, but he'll find a way to the wall first. Prediction: gold.
5. The 200 butterfly; Tuesday, July 31
This is the signature Phelps event: the one in which he made his first Olympic team, in 2000; the one in which he set his first world record, in 2001; the one in which he has the four fastest performances of all-time. The competition has crept closer since Beijing, but this is Phelps's baby. No way he loses. Prediction: gold.
6. The 800 freestyle relay; Tuesday, July 31
The world is full of fast 200 freestylers, but nobody has the concentration of talent like America. Between Phelps and Lochte, the U.S. will have the premier one-two punch in this event -- and the superior depth after those two as well. This event was not close in Beijing, and may not be close here. Prediction: gold.
7. The 400 medley relay; Wednesday, Aug. 1
The United States has won this event at every Olympics it has entered. Ever. Matt Grevers comes into these Games as the world's fastest backstroker, and Phelps is the world's fastest at butterfly. The U.S. will be well-represented in the breaststroke and freestyle legs as well. The winning streak will continue. Prediction: gold.
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