Phelps to size up Beijing competition in Australia

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Michael Phelps launches his two-month
countdown to the world championships this weekend, with the
landmark meet in Australia representing the start of what he calls
"the biggest two years of my swimming career."

The world championships are the most important meet outside the
Olympics, allowing Phelps and his rivals to size each other up 1
year before the Beijing Games.

"This worlds sets up everything that happens at the Olympics --
for endorsements, for my swimming career, for my times, for what
events I'm going to swim in Beijing," he said Friday. "It could
make me or break me as an athlete."

Phelps has hopes of again chasing Mark Spitz's record of seven
gold medals in Beijing. He fell just short in 2004, earning six
golds and two silvers in Athens.

"Getting so close in '04 and still having that fire and that
desire is something that excites me," he said.

But a second attempt hinges on how Phelps performs in Melbourne,
where he may swim five individual events and the relays.

"If I have a world championships sort of like I had in '03,
then I think it's a very good possibility," he said. "If the
event program doesn't go as well as planned, then it'll be too hard
at the Olympics."

Phelps believes Beijing represents his final shot at matching
Spitz because he'll be 23 at those games.

"After this Olympics, I think I'd be too old," he said. "I
don't think my body could handle it."

Phelps tests himself starting Saturday in the year's first grand
prix meet, with races in yards instead of meters. He's entered in
seven individual events and could swim two relays. His only
question mark is the 100-yard freestyle.

"I get to see where we are and see what we need to tune up for
worlds," he said after a light workout at the indoor pool. "I
can't believe we're less than 60 days away to Melbourne. That's
going to be a pretty big meet for all of us."

The 21-year-old swimmer is set to try the 100 and 200
breaststrokes this weekend, events he estimated he hasn't raced in
about two years.

"If I want to get faster in the individual medleys, my
breaststroke needs to improve," he said. "I've been talking trash
to the Michigan breaststrokers already."

Phelps trains in Ann Arbor, Mich., with fellow Olympians Klete
Keller, Erik Vendt and Kaitlin Sandeno, all of whom are competing
here, and the university's team.

Also in the pool will be the Texas-based trio of backstroker
Aaron Peirsol, breaststroker Brendan Hansen and butterflyer Ian
Crocker, along with five-time Olympic gold medalist Natalie
Coughlin and Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte.

"It's like an older NCAAs because all these guys are pros,"
said Phelps, who never swam collegiately before becoming a paid

Sandeno and Ous Mellouli of Tunisia won the women's and men's
1,000 freestyle Friday night.

This weekend Phelps is enjoying a rare break from coach Bob
Bowman, who stayed back for a Big Ten meet between Michigan and

"Bob texted me the other day and asked if I missed him," a
grinning Phelps said. "I typed back, `Ummm...not really."'

Jon Urbanchek, who preceded Bowman as Michigan coach, is
supervising the Club Wolverine swimmers.

"He's so much more relaxed," Phelps said. "If [Bowman] came
out here, he'd run us up the wall."

Phelps and his Club Wolverine teammates arrived directly from an
altitude training camp in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. In between
workouts, he tried his hand at beach volleyball and gained a
lightly sunburned face in the process.

"After refried beans and eggs for 18 days straight, we were all
sort of ready to have our omelet or sausage or bacon," he said.

Sporting a goatee, longer-than-usual hair, and the No. 20 jersey
of Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed, Phelps talked enthusiastically
about trying to catch as much of Saturday's Indianapolis-Baltimore
playoff game as he could before his events begin.

"The only sport I watch from beginning to end is football," he
said, predicting the Ravens' defense would overwhelm Colts
quarterback Peyton Manning.

On his way to the pool Friday, Phelps passed the shoreline
parking lot where the 2004 U.S. Olympic trials were held in a
temporary pool.

"Now all you see are light posts," he said. "It seems like it
was yesterday. It goes by quick. It's sort of like a roller

A whiplash ride he wants to be on in Beijing.