BEIJING — Michael Phelps got one of his toughest races out of the way, and it couldn’t have been any easier.
With President Bush cheering him on, Phelps dominated his first event of the Beijing Olympics today, crushing his own world record and all hopes of his challengers with a mark of 4 minutes, 3.84 seconds in the 400-meter individual medley.
For Dara Torres, a silver felt pretty good.
The 41-year-old mom picked up another Olympic medal by anchoring the Americans to a second-place finish in the 400 freestyle relay. She dived into the water too far behind to catch the winning team from the Netherlands but had no complaints after capping an improbable comeback by climbing the medal stand with three teammates — all in their 20s and probably younger than the old-fashioned goggles Torres was wearing.
Katie Hoff couldn’t match her performance in the 400 IM at the U.S. trials, settling for bronze.
As for Phelps, this was thought to be a potential stumbling block in his quest to win a record eight gold medals after fellow American and good friend Ryan Lochte matched him stroke for stroke at the U.S. Olympic trials just over a month ago. Both went under the previous world record in the 400 IM then, with Phelps touching first in 4:05.25.
But the Olympics were a different story. Laszlo Cseh of Hungary took the silver in 4:06.16, and Lochte faded to third in 4:08.09.
"I’m pretty happy. That was a pretty emotional race," Phelps said. "I knew it was going to be a tough race all the way through."
Well, it was for a while.
The top three traded the lead over the butterfly and backstroke legs. Cseh got off to a quick start, touching the first wall just ahead of Phelps, and Lochte claimed the lead midway through the back.
Phelps had a slight lead at the 200 mark, and it began turning into a blowout from there.
"Looking and seeing all three of us together pretty much at the 200, I wasn’t really comfortable with having that close of a race," Phelps said. "I usually have more of a gap, but it made my breaststroke a lot stronger."
No one was catching Phelps in the freestyle. He stretched his lead and powered to the wall with nearly his entire body in front of the world-record line — a green marker superimposed on the video screen to show the pace of the previous record.
Phelps touched the wall and spun around so quickly to see his time that he bumped his head. He pumped both arms in the air and quickly spotted his mother and two sisters in the massive stands at the Water Cube.
He then looked the other way, where Bush was waving his American flag, accompanied by the first lady, their daughter Barbara and his father, former President George H.W. Bush.
"I looked up and he waved the flag and nodded his head," Phelps said. "That was a pretty cool feeling."
Phelps wasn’t the only swimmer to dazzle on what figures to be another assault on the record book over the nine-day meet.
Stephanie Rice of Australia went out extremely fast and held on at the end to win the women’s 400 IM in 4:29.45 — nearly 2 seconds faster than the world record of 4:31.12 set by Katie Hoff at the U.S. Olympic trials.
Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe also went under the old mark but got only the silver for the second-fastest swim in history, 4:29.89. Hoff won the bronze in 4:31.71.
Park Tae-hwan of South Korea won the gold medal in the 400 freestyle. Zhang Lin of China earned his country’s first swimming medal of the Games, claiming silver, and American Larsen Jensen took the bronze.
The Dutch won the 400 free relay with an Olympic-record time of 3:34.33, beating the old mark of 3:35.94 set four years ago by Australia.
Natalie Coughlin took the leadoff leg for the Americans, followed by Lacey Nymeyer and Kara Lynn Joyce.
But all eyes were on Torres, the oldest swimmer in U.S. history and an inspiration to middle-agers everywhere with her return to the pool, just two years after having a child.
She swam the second-fastest 100 of anyone, but it wasn’t enough to catch Veldhuis. The Americans were second in 3:34.33, and the Australians took bronze in 3:35.05. Swimming in her record fifth Olympics, Torres picked up her 10th medal — four golds, two silvers and four bronzes.