For the US, this Olympic Games may be all about the swimming pool

For the past two weeks, Americans have gotten an early glimpse of the Summer Games. At opposite ends of California, the nation's elite runners and swimmers have gathered to book their places in Athens - and sketch the story lines that will soon become the grand narrative of these Olympic Games.

Yet a month before the Games begin, a major part of the American plot is already becoming clear. When the Olympic flame is eventually extinguished, the most enduring athletic images of these Olympics might well come from a group of goggle-eyed swimmers, not from the slick-suited sprinters who - to many Americans - have long embodied the Games themselves.

Backstroker Aaron Peirsol, after all, is not dogged by drug allegations. Michael Phelps is on track for his seven-gold goal. In contrast with the US Track and Field trials, which mixed accomplishment with equal measures of disappointment and doubt, the US swim trials seemed part carnival, part coronation, as one of the most talented squads in recent memory made an obvious statement of intent on the way to Athens.

The men, in particular, represent the strongest team in a generation, and perhaps the best since the 1976 team, which won every gold except one and swept the medals in five of 11 events. Almost certainly, their broad shoulders will be on the podium, their faces will be everywhere on American TV, and - with no drug scandal in sight - their names could be the most memorable of this Olympiad.

"I don't think there's any question that the swimmers have the potential - from a personality and performance perspective - to take center stage at these Games," says Dean Bonham of the Bonham Group, a sport-marketing firm in Denver.

Not that Phelps and Co. will lack for competition in the quest for American attention this summer. The women's gymnastics team is considered the best that the US has ever sent to an Olympic Games. And even with its problems, America's track and field team remains the strongest in the world, with the possibility of a US sweep in the Olympics' marquee event: the men's 100-meter dash.

Yet if the past fortnight is indeed a foretaste of Athens, swim caps and shark suits could replace track spikes and leotards as the ultimate Olympic power suit for two weeks in August.

Part of that comes from track's recent penchant for self-destruction. Just as the US Track and Field trials seemed to be emerging from the mist of scandal, one of the women who qualified for the 100-meter dash learned that she had tested positive for a banned substance. It also didn't help that the sport's premier superstar, Marion Jones, failed to qualify in her signature events - the 100 and 200 meters (she withdrew from the 200, citing fatigue).

"That may open up a window for athletes who aren't in track and field," says David Carter of the Sports Business Group in Redondo Beach, Calif.

Yet this set of swimmers is also an extraordinary bunch. The last time swimming headlined an American Olympic effort, 22 years ago, a mustachioed Californian named Mark Spitz won seven gold medals in one Games - the only time it has ever been done. The fact that Phelps stands to match that mark in Athens is no small part of swimming's ascendance.

LIKE Jo DiMaggio's 56-game hit streak, Spitz's seven golds hold an almost mystical spot in sports lore. Swimwear manufacturer Speedo says it will give Phelps $1 million if he can duplicate the historic feat.

Last week, he established one of his own. He became the first swimmer ever to qualify for six individual Olympic events - though he later decided to swim only five in Athens. He'll also compete in two or three relays. Mention his name, and experts twitch like sprinters in the starting blocks. "He's extraordinary," says Phil Whitten of the magazine Swimming News. "He does deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Spitz."

In a sport where excellence is founded on sheer muscle-numbing repetition, Phelps is an automaton, working out seven days a week, 51 weeks a year. "Swimming is notorious for its heavy training sessions," says Mr. Whitten. "This guy outdoes all of them ... and he's an incredibly fierce competitor."

The notion of seven gold medals might be beyond the possible, given that the rest of the world produces far more world-class swimmers today than it did in 1972. Likewise, the idea of the US taking all but one gold medal, as it did in 1976, is unrealistic. But Whitten expects Phelps to take at least four, with the team collecting 9 of 13 individual golds and one or two more in the three relays. "Michael Phelps is the core [of the team]," says Whitten. "But there's more than that."

There is world-record holder Peirsol, the easy-grinning California surfer dude who is so dominant in the backstroke that Phelps decided to drop the event in Athens. There is Ian Crocker and Brendan Hansen, who broke world records in the butterfly and breaststroke at the trials. There is Gary Hall Jr., who will reach his third Games, making him and his father the only father and son ever to make it to three Olympics each.

Says Bonham: "People could be absolutely infatuated with the performances."

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