Seventh Heaven?

If Michael Phelps's pursuit next week of seven gold medals and beyond were a Hollywood movie, it would go something like this:

His easy events--the 200-meter and 400-meter individual medley, the 200-meter butterfly--would come early. Boom! Three gold medals. Then things would get slightly harder. He'd get a scare in a few relays--the 4x100m medley and the 4x100m freestyle--but escape with golds for him and his U.S. teammates. At the midway point, he'd face his first big challenge: the 100m butterfly, against world-record holder American Ian Crocker. He'd win that by a hair and then, at the very end of the week, the climax of the movie, with the entire world glued to their TV sets, he'd get his shot at Mark Spitz's record in the two toughest events on his calendar: the 4x200m freestyle relay against the mighty Australians and the 200m freestyle against Dutch sprinter Peter van den Hoogenband (what a movie name!) and the Aussie archvillain Ian Thorpe. Boo! Hiss! (This is Hollywood, after all, where foreigners are bad.) Phelps triumphs in one or the other--or both!--and thrusts a victorious arm into the air as a sweeping champion's symphony blares over the soundtrack. The end. Roll credits. Don't forget to throw out your popcorn as you exit the theater.

Now snap out of it. This ain't Hollywood, so it ain't gonna happen like that.

The swimming schedule in Athens is nothing close to the way American moviemakers would design it. In fact, for NBC, which is counting on Phelps's run at Spitz's seven-gold record to provide a huge ratings boost, there is a disaster scenario lurking: his quest for history could be over by day four. Actually, if you talk to the experts in the sport, "could be" is putting it nicely. "Probably will be" is more like it. The network is praying for at least one race in which Phelps dives into the water with a chance to match, if not beat, the record. If he loses that race, well, bummer. But from a ratings perspective, all that matters is that people get to watch him go for it. (Just ask Smarty Jones. Or his jockey.) The problem for NBC is the unforgiving Olympic swimming schedule. Because of the order of events, there's a strong possibility that the 19-year-old phenom will suffer his second defeat before he wins his sixth gold, meaning he might never get the chance to swim a race with Spitz's record waiting for him at the finish line.

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On the flip side, if everything goes just the way Phelps (and NBC) would like it, the Baltimore kid's final race could be the victory lap to the greatest performance in Olympic history. If he has a perfect week, he'll top Spitz by bringing home eight golds. Seven would equal the 1972 record-breaker's tally--but would rank as a more impressive achievement given the tough competition Phelps faces.

Here's what the road to that point will look like--here in Athens, in the real world--and what a win or a loss at each step along the way will mean to his record chase.

Day One: Saturday, Aug. 14. Men's 400m individual medley final.

Race breakdown: This one fits the Hollywood script. Phelps owns this race: he beat the rest of the field at the U.S. Olympic trials last month by an absurd 5.68 seconds, lowering his own world record by nearly a second to 4:08.41. Hungarian teenager Laszlo Cseh could've pressed him, but Cseh is recovering from recent foot surgery and isn't expected to be in peak form.

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Record chase: Phelps will get his first gold on the first day of Olympic competition.

Day Two: Sunday, Aug. 15. Men's 4x100m freestyle relay final.

Race breakdown: There's an outside chance Phelps won't even swim this event. Because he didn't swim the 100m freestyle at the trials, some on the U.S. team have grumbled that he shouldn't be on the relay team. But at another meet in 2004, he swam the world's second-fastest race of the year, and no one disputes he'll give the team a better chance at gold. Bet on Phelps to swim the race and for him and likely teammates Jason Lezak, Ian Crocker and Gary Hall Jr., to win the gold over Australia and South Africa.

Record chase: With a U.S. win, he's two for two and on track for history. But, if the U.S. team should lose, and it's certainly a possibility, Phelps's chances at seven would be dealt a crippling blow on just the second day of competition. He'd have to sweep the rest of his events, including the three that everyone considers his shakiest: the 200m freestyle, the 4x200m freestyle relay and the 100m butterfly.

Day Three: Monday, Aug. 16. Men's 200m freestyle final.

Race breakdown: This will be the peak event of the Athens Olympics and maybe the biggest swim race in decades. And make no mistake: Phelps will not be favored for the gold. That honor will go to Thorpe, the event's world-record holder. Phelps will also have to beat Van den Hoogenband, who upset Thorpe at the Sydney Games in 2000, and Thorpe's ferocious Aussie teammate Grant Hackett. Phelps, a multidisciplinary swimmer, is not a freestyle specialist; the other three athletes are. Bottom line: no one will be shocked if Phelps upsets the field and takes the gold--and no one will be shocked if he fails to win a medal of any color.

Record chase: NBC would surely prefer that this race happened later in the week and that Phelps had more on the line when the gun went off. But the network's loss might be Phelps's gain--he tends to get stronger as a meet unfolds. If the U.S. team has won the 4x100m freestyle relay and Phelps wins here, start getting excited. A victory in the 200m freestyle would mean Phelps is swimming like a hurricane--and that might throw a scare into his foes the rest of the way. But more importantly, it'll remove the biggest hurdle in his individual program. Now, if he loses, start getting nervous. (Unless, of course, the U.S. has already lost the 4x100m freestyle relay, in which case the ballgame's over anyway--on day three.) Topping Spitz would become impossible. And to match him, Phelps would have to be perfect from here, and his teammates will have to be perfect. He'll need their help on two more relays.

Day Four: Tuesday, Aug. 17. Men's 200m butterfly final.

Race breakdown: Pencil in this one for Phelps. With the exception of day one's 400m individual medley, this is his surest thing of the week. No one in the world is within two seconds of his world-record pace.

Record chase: He's either four for four and right on target or three for four and still in the hunt. (Yes, he could also be two for four, but let's pretend from here on that he and his teammates won the 4x100m freestyle relay. Just for fun.)

Day Four: Tuesday, Aug. 17. Men's 4x200m freestyle relay final.

Race breakdown: A mere 55 minutes after Phelps towels off from the 200m fly, he'll be back on the pool deck for this relay. Odds are the U.S. team will win the week's first relay--but hardly anyone expects them to win this one. The Aussie relay team, which will feature Thorpe and Hackett, won this relay by five seconds in Sydney and the gap hasn't shrunk all that much since. An American defeat won't be Phelps's fault, but that won't change the color of his medal.

Record chase: NBC, here's your disaster scenario. Of Phelps's eight races, this is his most likely defeat. And if it's his second defeat, goodbye Mark Spitz. Just to put it into perspective, the entire U.S. media has been hyping the Spitz-Phelps connection for most of 2004, and there's a chance it'll be over by the time most Americans sit down for lunch on the fourth day of the 16-day Olympic games. Now, to be fair, this is entirely unfair. Even with a second loss here, Phelps could still finish off the week with six gold medals--a truly astounding accomplishment. But life ain't fair and neither are fickle TV viewers. Which is too bad, because his best swimming of the week may be ahead of him. But here's the good news: these are the Olympics, and strange things happen--especially when the race favorite no longer has home-pool advantage. Should the U.S. relay team pull off a monster upset, start getting really excited. If Phelps has only one loss after this race, he's in good shape for seven gold medals. If he's five for five after this race, seven is practically in the bag, and an unthinkable eight is suddenly very thinkable.

Day Five: Wednesday, Aug. 18. No finals.

A day off for Phelps? Not quite. The U.S.--and the rest of the world--will get a break from the Phelps saga as Gary Hall Jr. attempts to defend his 2000 gold medal in the 100m freestyle against American teammate (and bitter rival) Jason Lezak and the 1996 gold medalist Aleksandr Popov, "The Russian Rocket." But that doesn't mean Phelps can chill out all day. He'll have to swim preliminary and semifinal rounds of the 200m individual medley.

Day Six: Thursday, Aug. 19. Men's 200m individual medley final.

Race breakdown: Phelps's third, and final, freebie. The second-best performer in the history of this event is three seconds behind Phelps's world record. The field's only chance is if the kid is totally out of gas by this point. And he won't be.

Record chase: Essentially the same as the past two days.

Day Seven: Friday, Aug. 20. Men's 100m butterfly final.

Race breakdown: Phelps's last major test of the week. Crocker, 21, holds the world record and defeated a weary Phelps at the Olympic trials last month. The final should also feature defending gold-medalist Lars Frolander, the aging but still dangerous Swede, who's competing in his fourth Olympics at age 30. Crocker should have a significant advantage considering that, by this point in the week, Phelps will have swum nearly 20 races. But if Phelps still has a shot at Spitz, expect the adrenaline to be pumping. And even if Spitz is out of reach, Phelps has special motivation for this race: revenge. He owned the world record in this event until Crocker broke it in 2003; ever since then, Phelps has kept a picture of the University of Texas standout above his bed in Baltimore.

Record chase: Mathematically speaking, this is the first race in which Phelps could possibly be swimming for his seventh gold. Alas, the most likely scenario is that Phelps will enter this race with four gold medals. If that's the case, he'll be swimming for the chance to go home with a remarkable five or six gold medals, rather than a historic seven or eight. The poor thing.

Day Eight: Saturday, Aug. 21. Men's 4x100m medley relay final.

Race breakdown: The U.S. has long owned this event and, barring a major upset, will take home the gold.

Record chase: The major question hanging over the competition is whether Phelps, in his eighth and final race, will swim the butterfly leg or the freestyle leg. What difference does it make? None in terms of the final outcome--but plenty in terms of pure drama, especially if Phelps is still on Spitz's trail. If Phelps swims the butterfly leg, he'll start the race and someone else, probably either Lezak or Hall, will finish it. But if he swims the freestyle leg, he'll finish the race. The image of Phelps touching the wall to join, or dethrone, Spitz could be the greatest in Olympic history. You don't have to be an American--just a sport fan--to hope it happens.

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