Thompson, U.S. victimized by amazing Aussies

ATHENS -- You almost could see this one coming.

It stands to reason that on the night Michael Phelps ratcheted up Phelps-mania a notch the other U.S. swimmers in the opening round of 2004 Olympic Games competition would be celebrating silver and bronze medals.

Phelps, the Teen Who Would Be King, surpassed his own world record Saturday in the 400-meter individual medley (4:08.26), won his first career Olympic gold medal and, later, seemed down right matter-of-fact about it in a manner totally expected of a 19-year-old who won the talent-gene lottery.

While he was winning America's first 2004 gold and establishing new standards for the world, the U.S. women's 4x100 freestyle relay team and women's 400-meter IM swimmer Kaitlin Sandeno were setting American records and earning Olympic silver medals. And in an epic race for 2000 Olympic stars Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett of Australia in the 400 freestyle, in which they finished 1-2, Klete Keller recorded an American record time that was worthy of an Olympic bronze medal.

The stinger for the American women was the 400 relay, which the United States has owned in the past three Olympic Games thanks to the anchor leg heroics of legend Jenny Thompson. With the past three gold medals belonging to the United States in this event, and Thompson back at age 31 to be the anchor once again, it would not have been difficult to imagine a slightly intimidated Australian relay foursome.

They were not intimidated, but they were faster, ultimately collecting the gold on the shoulders of a barrier breaking 52.95-seconds split time by Aussie Jodie Henry. Her dramatic leg for the ages also capped a world record time of 3:35.94.

But Natalie Coughlin was hearing none of any suggestion that this was a night of drooping shoulders for herself, Thompson and fellow relayers Kara Lynn Joyce and Amanda Weir, though the United States led narrowly when Thompson hit the water for her anchor duties.

"It took a world record to get gold," Coughlin said. "This was my best relay swim ever. I think it is a good sign for the next seven days to come."

Thompson's 11th Olympic career medal -- tying swimming stars such as Mark Spitz and Matt Biondi -- is a silver primarily because the Aussie Henry rose to the occasion as never before in the history of the event.

"We knew they had speed," said Australian Olympic coach Leigh Nugent. "It was just a matter of making sure they keep themselves together, of maintaining their composure. Jodie is very good at that."

Coughlin acknowledged that Thompson battled "mixed emotions" after the race because she turned in a split time of 53.77 that in many cases would have been good enough to hold the lead.

Thorpe's emotions were similarly uneven despite the fact he won his fourth career Olympic gold and repeated as the 400 free champion. He was three seconds off his world record and admitted at the outset that his swim was technically below his standards, but what really tugged at Thorpe's heart Saturday was the prolonged drama back in Australia that led to the moment here.

At home at the Aussie Olympic trials, Thorpe had false started in the 400 free, which Hackett went on to win ahead of Craig Stevens. In an only-in-Australia story in a swimming obsessed nation, Stevens soon found himself facing enormous public pressure to relinquish his Olympic berth in the event so team officials could then assign it to the idolized Thorpe, his friend. Stevens did just that. He became a hero by stepping aside for a superhero.

"I was probably swimming the race for other people besides myself," said Thorpe, explaining why he was off form. "But it was worth it.

"I didn't swim the race well, there is no doubt about that. I wasn't on my game. I think my 200 [freestyle] will be much faster than my 400. It had better be, or I'll be pretty mad."

The 200, featuring what Thorpe calls a "stud lineup" is one of the most anticipated races of the Games, and it gets started with preliminaries and semifinals Sunday, followed by Monday's final. It has Thorpe, Hackett and Phelps, and Dutch Olympic champion Pieter van den Hoogenband.

"The list goes on and on," Phelps said of the 200 outlook. "I've always said I wanted to race Thorpe in a freestyle event before either of us is done."

Clearly, as Saturday demonstrated, both are far from done.