Michael Phelps electrified the Water Cube on Sunday, earning his first gold medal of the Beijing Games with a stunning world record in the 400m individual medley.

The 23-year-old American, aiming to improve on swimmer Mark Spitz’s Olympic standard of seven gold medals at one Games, was cheered on by US President George W. Bush, who turned out to see Phelps outgun Hungarian Laszlo Cseh and fellow American Ryan Lochte in the first swimming final on the Beijing programme.

Phelps didn’t disappoint, clocking 4min 03.84sec and slicing 1.41sec off the previous world mark of 4:05.25 that he set at the US trials in June. He admitted that Lochte and Cseh were too close for his comfort at the halfway stage - after the butterfly and backstroke legs. Lochte, swimming two lanes over, briefly edged ahead in the breaststroke, but Phelps asserted himself and closed out his rivals with a majestic finishing freestyle.

‘I came off the last wall and it was the same feeling as in Athens,’ Phelps said. ‘I saw myself out there and I smiled. I knew the first one (gold medal) was there.’ Cseh, lying a close third most of the way, overtook Lochte for the silver, clocking a European record of 4:06.16. Lochte took the bronze in 4:08.09. Resting at the pool wall, Phelps smiled and raised an arm in triumph. From his perch in the VIP section, Bush signalled congratulations.

‘It was cool,’ Phelps said of the presidential salute. ‘That was a cool feeling to have the President here and to say congratulations.’ ‘That was a pretty emotional race,’ said Phelps, the subject of intense scrutiny for months as he readied his assault on the record gold tally Spitz set in Munich in 1972.

To break it, he’ll have to swim at least 17 times over the nine days of competition as he goes for gold in five individual events and three relays.

‘I think I am as prepared as I can be at the moment,’ he said. With his medley triumph, Phelps successfully defended one of the six titles he won four years ago in Athens. On Sunday night he turned in a conservative performance in the heats of the 200m freestyle, notching the fourth-fastest time heading into the semi-finals.

‘Tonight was just about getting to tomorrow,’ said Phelps, who was an underdog when he took bronze in the event in Athens but is now the world record-holder.


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