Will Phelps race 400 IM? It's still a mystery

Michael Phelps wasn't taking the bait Saturday when reporters asked about the 400IM race. AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

OMAHA, Neb. -- The U.S. Olympic swim trials are starting with a cliffhanger before a single drop of water is displaced. And Michael Phelps isn't about to spoil it.

Phelps is entered in Monday's 400-meter individual medley, the first race of the meet. He is the two-time defending Olympic champion in the event and has held the world record since 2002, breaking his own mark seven times since. He said he wanted no part of the four-minute-plus meat grinder after the 2008 Olympics, but later changed his mind and has raced it several times this season.

The IM would kick off the widely anticipated serial showdown between Phelps and rival Ryan Lochte in dramatic fashion, and Phelps' former University of Michigan teammate Tyler Clary has said he's confident he can finish in the top two.

Yet not everyone is convinced Phelps is actually going to take the plunge.

"We've got a couple hours to decide, right?" Phelps said, spreading his hands wide and smiling mischievously. "In 24 hours, you guys will know."

He wouldn't even take the bait on my follow-up question about when he'll shave his bushy mustache. "I can't give that away," he said. "If I shave tomorrow, that would mean I'm swimming the 400 IM. It'll come off when the rest of my body hair comes off."

Swimmers have until early Sunday evening to scratch from Monday morning's events.

Clary said he doesn't expect Phelps to swim, "but stranger things have happened."

Clary, who broke Phelps' American record in the short-course 400-yard IM in 2009, is seeded second in the event behind Lochte and ahead of Phelps. He theorized that the 400 IM might not fit in with the rest of Phelps' goals, and said the 16-time Olympic medalist knows he can pass on it without hurting the U.S. team.

"It's not going to change what I do in the pool on Monday night, whether or not he's in it," Clary said. "I'm gonna throw down and swim the best race I've got."

Lochte, the reigning world champion in the event, said simply, "I sure hope he is," when asked to predict whether Phelps will be on deck for the preliminary heats. "He's the world's best swimmer, ever. I love racing against him. It's fun."

Phelps has raced the 400 IM several times this season, edging Clary at the Indianapolis Grand Prix and winning the event in Austin earlier this month without either Lochte or Clary in the field.