ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- Michael Phelps grabbed his head in disbelief, then thrust his left fist in the air. He's an Olympic champion - just like Mark
Spitz. Phelps began his quest to overtake Spitz' 1972 record haul of seven gold medals with a dominating performance in the 400-meter individual
medley, breaking his own world record Saturday night and claiming the first U.S. gold medal of the Athens Games.
Ian Thorpe won his second straight gold in the 400 freestyle - a race he got into only through the generosity of a teammate - but Jenny Thompson was
denied her record-tying ninth gold medal when she gave up the lead to Australia on the final leg of the 400 free relay.
Still, it was a good night for the powerful American team, which began eight days in the Olympic pool with a 1-2 finish. Phelps touched the wall in 4
minutes, 8.26 seconds, while teammate Erik Vendt was more than 3 1/2 seconds behind but good enough for silver at 4:11.81.
"I'm a little bit less nervous," said Phelps, 19, of Baltimore. "I've got one off my shoulders and can relax a little bit."
It was a rousing start to the much-anticipated Olympic meet, but Phelps is just getting warmed up. He will likely swim in eight events, giving him a
chance to break Spitz's record at the Munich Games.
So far, Phelps is following the script of the greatest swimmer in Olympic history. All seven of Spitz's wins were in record time.
Thorpe almost missed the 400 free - his best event - when he inexplicably fell off the starting block at the Australian trials, earning an automatic
disqualification. But he got in when teammate Craig Stevens gave up his spot.
Thorpe barely held off another countryman, Grant Hackett, to win in 3:43.10. American Klete Keller took bronze for the second straight Olympics.
"I didn't realize how much this event meant to me," said Thorpe, who fought back tears after touching the wall. "I am more excited now that it is off
Thompson, 31, had a chance for her ninth gold when she dove into the water for the anchor leg with a lead of nearly four-tenths of a second.
But the greatest relay swimmer in U.S. history couldn't hold it. Jodie Henry passed Thompson after they made the final turn nearly in unison, touching
the wall in 3:35.94 to break the world record of 3:36.00 set by Germany two years ago.
The winning team included Alice Mills, Lisbeth Lenton and Petria Thomas, but it was Henry who did the bulk of the work. She swam nearly a second
faster than Thompson with a stunning time of 52.95 for the final 100.
Thompson swam her 100 in 53.77 - best of the American swimmers and enough to give the team a national record of 3:36.39. The Netherlands took bronze
© 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.