LONG BEACH, Calif. -- The revelation that teen swimmer Michael Phelps might emerge as merely sensational instead of immortal did not deter the head coach of the U.S. Olympic swimming team from bold declarations less than a month before the opening of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.
"This could be one of the strongest (men's) teams since the (1976) team," said Eddie Reese, the University of Texas coach for 26 seasons who is making his second tour as head Olympic coach since 1992. "That team won every gold medal but one and had five one-two-three finishes. Going into the Olympics, I put this team second to the '76 team."
Phelps, who was born nine years after the Montreal Games referenced by Reese, as usual drew a crowd Wednesday in a carefully orchestrated press conference that followed a more casual gathering with Reese and women's head coach Mark Schubert.
In a photo-op likely never imagined by the folks at North Baltimore Aquatic Club, the Athens-bound Phelps and his NABC coach, Bob Bowman, shared a well-lit dais with international model Cindy Crawford and the emcee, Olympic medalist and television commentator Rowdy Gaines.
Crawford was there to welcome Phelps aboard as he joins a roster of global ambassadors who endorse Omega timepieces, but it was the pending announcement by Phelps that he was reducing his Olympic event lineup from six to five individual races that had the assembled observers checking their own watches.
The decision was not a well-kept secret or a stunning turn of events, other than its proximity to Crawford's indifferent gaze. Not unexpectedly, Phelps did not collapse in a heap after Monday's epic day at the Olympic trials where he competed in two finals, falling short in the 200 backstroke to Aaron Peirsol's world record but still qualifying, and winning his specialty, the 200 individual medley. He was forced to return to the pool after both of those to compete in the 100 butterfly semifinal.
"We did find that Michael was physiologically improving through the week (of trials races)," Bowman said. "But the following day he really felt tired. In the 100 fly (final) I don't think he felt he was in peak condition."
Later, Bowman added: "I would not forgive myself if Michael raced himself into the ground (in Athens) in the 200 back."
Informed of the Phelps strategy, Peirsol expressed regret that Phelps will not be in the 200 back field because "he opened my eyes this year, gave me a little extra spark."
If Phelps swims in all five individual races and in two of three relays, it appears his best hope for total gold medals will be five, an outcome that would leave the Mark Spitz standard of seven overall gold medals, achieved in 1972, intact for another four years.
"I am lucky enough to have one shot," Phelps said.
Reese has a Texas-heavy contingent heading to Athens including world record setters Ian Crocker (100 butterfly), who is better than Phelps in this event and defeated him here; Brendan Hansen, who set two records (100 and 200 breaststroke); and Peirsol. For experience and maturity, the team will turn to three-time Olympian Gary Hall Jr., who qualified by winning the 50 freestyle, and Lenny Krayzelburg, the defending Olympic champion in the 100 backstroke who battled Peirsol to finish second in the trials.
"It's going to be stunning," Crocker said of the team's Athens prospects. "I just want that first (starting) gun to go off."
Schubert's view of the women's team, despite its experience, is more restrained. He assesses the lineup as one "that needs to improve a lot between now and the Olympics."
As is typically the case, the youth curve is much more severe on the women's team with the qualification of teens Katie Hoff (15), in the 200 and 400 IM, Kara Lynn Joyce (18), in the 100 free and 400 free relay, and the first sisters to qualify for the same team, Dana (20) and Tara Kirk (22).
Amanda Beard, who established a world record here in the 200 breaststroke, and Jenny Thompson, at 31 an athletic marvel who endured to qualify in the 100 butterfly, will be the "den mothers." It will be Beard's third Olympics, Thompson's fourth.
Thompson added the 50 freestyle to her menu for Athens by winning the event final Wednesday night in 25.02 seconds, ahead of fellow qualifier Joyce (25.11).
Bouncing back from the 2003 world championships in which she was rendered ineffective by illness, Cal star Natalie Coughlin -- the world's first woman under one minute in the 100 backstroke -- qualified in that event and the 100 freestyle. She failed to add the 50 free Wednesday, finishing way out of contention in sixth (25.31). Coughlin also will contribute in at least one relay.
Kaitlin Sandeno, 21, emerged as the Michael Phelps of the women's competition, more in terms of quantity than gold-medal potential. Sandeno, who competed in Sydney in the 2000 Games and won an 800-meter freestyle bronze medal, qualified for Athens in three individual events -- the 400 freestyle, 200 fly and 400 individual medley.
"We have some obvious leaders," Schubert said. "I think those people are going to nurture and help those young swimmers."