Phelps' Olympic Bid Starts in Style

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Simon Bruty / Sports Illustrated

Michael Phelps celebrates after setting a world record and taking gold in the Men's 400m Individual Medley

There's always plenty of pressure on athletes to perform to their absolute best at the Olympics, but how many can say that they have shouldered the burden of competing in front of not one, but two presidents and billions of TV viewers?

Michael Phelps can, of course. And just to prove that he wasn't going to let anyone see him sweat, the 23-year-old set a new world record too, while President Bush, his father, the First Lady and daughter Barbara cheered him on. In the Games' first swimming event, Phelps dropped nearly a second and a half off his own world record, set a month ago at the Olympic trials, and launched his quest for a history making- eight gold. Not to be outdone, Dara Torres, famed for being the oldest swimmer at the Games, showed that age doesn't seem to matter when you're in a swimsuit.

As he headed into the last 100m, Phelps was already 1.40 seconds under his world record and the crowd roared into action — enough to bring Bush out of his seat, waving the American flag. Indeed, the only glitch came later on the medal stand, during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner, which cut off a few seconds before the end. Phelps didn't mind; the moment was emotional enough already, and he admitted to being too choked up to sing along anyway. The next time Phelps will potentially hear the anthem will be Monday when he goes in the 4x100m freestyle relay final.

Part of the inspiration for his blistering swim in the final, which he led from start to finish, was the promise he says he's extracted from his coach Bob Bowman, that he would not have to swim the 400m individual medley, a grueling two laps each of all four swimming strokes — the butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle, in a meet again. It has become Phelps' signature event, but takes a lot out of him, both to train and to compete in. "I told him this was my last 400 IM, and he said, 'Well, it has to be a record then,'" Phelps said. "So in my opinion, it's the last one." Coach Bowman, however, didn't' seem to agree. "We don't know," he said. "It is [the last one] for this meet!"

Phelps' feat is all the more impressive because it comes in the morning; swimmers are accustomed to competing later in the day, when their bodies are warmed up and muscles are ready to race — indeed, most of the swimmers still seemed to think it was evening, referring to the meet as happening 'tonight.' Just what NBC wanted, so viewers in the U.S. can enjoy Michael's exploits live and in prime time. Not a morning person, Phelps got up at 6:15 to swim in the pool at the Village, "just to wake him up," said Bowman. "We won't do that again during the meet, but for the first race, I wanted to make sure he was ready."

He was, and so was 41-year old Torres, who clocked the second fastest 100m time in the 400m freestyle relay and is the first middle-ager to swim in an Olympic relay — not to mention win a medal. As the anchor of the U.S. team, Torres was the fastest off the blocks and the quickest in the water, out-swimming teammates half her age to push the U.S. to a silver behind the Netherlands. "Age is really just a number," she said. "Water doesn't really know what age you are." After this, her 50m freestyle, a week from now, should really be just a splash and dash. And by then, the whole world will know if Phelps is still on course to make Olympic history of his own.