Two years and counting to Beijing

Michael Phelps moved from his hometown in Baltimore to follow his lifelong coach and train in Ann Arbor, Mich. But America's most dominant swimmer isn't living on Eastern Time.

Instead, he follows a different clock. A giant digital one on the wall of his new training center reads: "Countdown to Beijing.''

The time between now and the Olympics in Beijing, exactly two years from Tuesday, Aug. 8, is the only time Phelps cares about.

Phelps' coach Bob Bowman, ever the motivator, custom-ordered the clock and it looms large in the University of Michigan's Canham Natatorium. With the clock ticking away to the tenth of a second, it serves as a constant reminder that the Beijing Games are not as far off as they might seem.

As if Phelps needed any reminding.

It seemed that as soon as Phelps stepped out of the pool for the last time at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, reporters were already asking him about his plans for 2008. Perhaps we should have asked him more about 2006.

As it turns out, the ConocoPhillips National Championships (Aug. 1-5, Irvine, Calif.), served as the qualifying event for the FINA World Championships (March 25-April 1, Melbourne) as well as four other major international competitions.

"If you don't swim well here,'' Phelps said in reference to the national championships, "you are out of international competition for the next two years.''

"The countdown has already started for us,'' Phelps added. "The faster we swim now, the faster we can swim in about a year and a half or two years.''

Phelps would rather look ahead than behind. Following his spectacular showing in Athens where he captured eight medals -- six of them gold -- he was convicted of driving under the influence and was sentenced to 18 months probation. Soon afterward, he moved from Baltimore to Ann Arbor, where Bowman had been named the Wolverines head coach.

The whirlwind of media attention and his first brush of any kind with negative publicity, combined with having to live on his own for the first time, forced Phelps to grow up quickly. He learned that he couldn't load his dishwasher with hand soap, and that it was easier to eat cereal out of bowls instead of empty Gatorade bottles.

More important, he learned that he had to get back into a serious training regimen if he wanted to challenge Mark Spitz's record of seven golds in one Olympics. The 2005 campaign was a tough one for Phelps, especially his seventh-place showing in the 100 m final at the World Championships in Montreal.

Leading up to this year's national championships, Phelps claimed he was in much improved condition and credited his new training partners in Ann Arbor for his rebound.

"If you're not on your 'A' game at our workouts every day, you're going to get absolutely smoked,'' Phelps said.

Although Phelps won five events at nationals, he was often disappointed with his times and his turns, and he failed to break any world records. He said he hopes to have an event program in place for Beijing by the end of this summer. He's also had talks with his agent about how he'll handle media coverage for the Games.

"I think what we did before Athens definitely worked,'' Phelps said.

Still, Phelps left Irvine knowing there was still a little time left on the clock that really counts: the time left until the Games begin.

Here's a look at how some of America's other top athletes are doing with two years to go before the torch is lit:

Swimming: Phelps isn't the only Baltimore product expected to shine in Beijing. Look out for Katie Hoff, who competed in Athens at the ripe old age of 15. She captured the 2005 world title in the 200 m free. Hoff, now 17, won the 200 individual medley at nationals, but in the 200 m free finals, she lost to Athens star Natalie Coughlin.

On the men's side, Brendan Hansen clearly has recovered from his hip injury as he set a world record in the 100 m breaststroke at nationals. Aaron Peirsol, reigning Olympic gold medalist in the 100 m and 200 m backstroke, last week claimed his 10th and 11th national titles in those events. Meanwhile his sister Hayley Peirsol, who turns 21 on Aug. 9, was the surprise winner in the 800 m free, beating favorite (and world champion) Kate Ziegler with a personal-best time. She won on the same day her big brother beat Phelps in the 200 m backstroke. We can already see the up-close-and-personal brother-sister piece now.

Lap times aren't the only times on swimmers' minds. Many swimmers are already thinking about how they'll prepare should the International Olympic Committee decide to reschedule the event finals so the American public can watch them live. If that happens, the swimmers will have to produce their best times in the morning. Typically, the finals are held later in the day.

"I guess I'll just drink a lot of coffee in the morning,'' Peirsol said.

The morning wake-up call might be problematic for some. Phelps, however, shrugged it off.

"It's the Olympic Games,'' Phelps said. "My feeling is, if you can't get up for an Olympic final at 10 o'clock in the morning, then you're never really going to get up to swim an Olympic final. I don't know what it is going to take to get you excited and motivated to swim fast.''

Track and field: OK, so who's not going to test positive for steroids in Beijing? That seems to be the biggest question for athletes leading up to the next Games.

There could be some mystical truth in the fact that 2008 is the Year of the Rat.

Track and field certainly doesn't need any more surprises like the recent one from world-record holder Justin Gatlin or any more coaches like Trevor Graham, who on Thursday was banned permanently by the U.S. Olympic Committee from its training centers and training sites. (In case you haven't been following the BALCO news, Graham coaches Gatlin and has worked with Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery.)

Try as the U.S.O.C. and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency might to clean up the sport, they clearly have failed. The cheaters seem to be one step ahead. However, the recent positive tests from Gatlin and Tour de France winner Floyd Landis seem to have American Olympic officials optimistic that the tests are catching at least some of the bad guys.

After years of trying to increase America's medal count -- the U.S. pre-Olympic goal for Athens was to win 100 medals, which it exceeded by three -- Olympic leadership now appears more intent on taking a clean team to Beijing.

"If we win zero medals, that's fine,'' said Jim Scherr, chief executive officer for the U.S.O.C.

One athlete the U.S.O.C. is touting couldn't be more of a shining star in the wake of steroid-gate: Allyson Felix. A highly regarded sprinter from her high school days, Felix won a silver medal when she was just 18 in Athens. In 2005, she became the world outdoor 200 m champion. Making her an even more likely candidate for advertising campaigns leading up to Beijing is the fact that she's the daughter of a Baptist preacher.

Felix, who went undefeated in the 200 m event in 2005, called all the steroid news "unfortunate'' and hopes to show a more positive side of the sport. Interestingly, however, Felix once considered hiring Graham as her coach.

Go figure.

Men's basketball: Dream Team V just doesn't have that ring, does it? Back when it was cool to be an NBA player in the Olympics, in the days of Barkley, Magic and Michael, the good old United States could just kick around Angola and make a ton of money doing it.

Nowadays, the Americans actually have to practice. The team got a wake-up call in 2000 in Sydney when it struggled in a preliminary game against Lithuania (the first time a Dream Team failed to win by double digits), and then had a narrow escape in the semifinals, again versus Lithuania. Had Sarunas Jasikevicius not missed a desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer, the United States would have been Downed Under.

The United States won the gold against France but then followed up those Olympics with a sixth-place showing at the 2002 World Championships and a bronze medal in Athens. The dream officially had become a nightmare.

With Duke guru Mike Krzyzewski at the helm, there is hope the NBA players actually will play more like a college team than a pro one -- even if some of the Olympic stars, like LeBron James, bypassed college altogether.

The U.S. squad is preparing for the 2006 World Championships, which begin Aug. 19 in Japan. The last time it won the world title was back in 1994. Do the names Dominique Wilkins and Joe Dumars ring a bell?

The Dream Team era certainly was a marketing dream, and the U.S. players were the most sought-after by fans. In Beijing, however, this team -- even with King James and Carmelo Anthony -- probably won't be the biggest draw. That honor likely will go to China's Yao Ming.

Women's basketball: While the men's team has struggled internationally, the women's team continues to cruise. Since 1996, the women have won five Olympic golds and five world championships and boast a 42-0 record.

Two-time gold medalist Yolanda Griffith was recently added to an already talented squad with Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Katie Smith, Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird.

Gymnastics: Please. No more judging scandals.

Athens was all about Paul Hamm. Should he keep the medal? Should he give it back?

We'd love for that to be in the past, but the introduction of the Code of Points likely will lead to more discussion on the topic. In the wake of the Hamm controversy, the international gymnastics federation overhauled the scoring system. No longer is a 10.0 perfection. If you see scores in the 14s and 15s, you've seen some darn good gymnastics.

The United States hopes its future will include winning gold without protests. At the moment, the women's team is shaping up fantastically. The women dominated the 2005 World Championships, claiming the gold and silver in the all-around and nine medals overall. Chellsie Memmel is considered Carly Patterson's heir apparent, although Memmel will have a tough time with teammate Nastia Liukin on her heels. Liukin lost the world all-around title to Memmel by just .001 of a point.

Still, insiders believe Memmel might have an edge over Liukin (who, by the way, trains at the same Texas gym that produced Patterson) because her style seems to be in line with the new code of points. Falls are now an eight-tenths of a point deduction. In the past, they only cost five-tenths. So if a more artistic gymnast attempts more difficult maneuvers to increase her points but falls, it could be costly.

Soccer: There's no place to go but up. The U.S. men's team failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympics (marking the first time it didn't qualify since 1976) and the Americans are hoping the likes of Freddy Adu will kick the U.S. back into gear. The best the men have finished was fourth in 2000.

The women's side is a different story. It's trying to keep its success going. But it will have to do so with new young talent. If you're looking for Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain, you'll have to go elsewhere. The last time the "Fab Five'' of women's soccer (Hamm, Chastain, Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett) played competitively together was when the U.S. women captured the gold in Athens.

Abby Wambach, the player who scored the gold-medal game-winner in the farewell to the old guard in Greece, is expected to carry the United States into this next era.

Wrestling: Dremiel Byers made a promise to his grandfather that he plans to keep: He vowed to win an Olympic gold medal.

The problem is, Byers has yet to compete in an Olympics. Byers didn't make the Olympic squad in 2000 or 2004, but has been focused nonstop on 2008. A Greco-Roman world champion in 2002, he hopes to regain his title form for Beijing. He said he thinks about the upcoming Games every time he blinks.

"Missing out on the 2000 and 2004 Olympics … some people would call it an Olympic dream. I'd call it an Olympic obsession,'' Byers said.

Maybe the third time will be the charm.

Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.