3 into 23 does go: Happy Birthday Michael
Craig Lord
Superfish has been described as the most versatile swimmer in history. He looks set to become much more than that as he prepares for his third Games at the age of 23 (Monday's his big day)

Mark Spitz is often to be found these days in the same sentence as Michael Phelps. It's been that way since before Athens 2004, the Baltimore Bullet's gunning for that 1972 seven gold-medal tally made all the more poignant when Speedo put a price tag of $1million on the Olympic legend's head.

In Omaha on Sunday, Phelps will step up to race the day before he turns 23 at the start of his third Olympic campaign (at 23!). The headline of the Beijing Olympic Games (the man that NBC and the IOC had in mind when they decided to turn tradition on its head with morning finals to suit domestic US television audiences it will be written widely, whether true or not) is entered in nine events.

USA head coach Mark Schubert said at an international press conference this week that the list of races at trials - 100m, 200m 400m freestyle, 100 and 200m backstroke, 100m and 200m butterfly, 200m and 400m medley - reflects a certain amount of posturing from the biggest star among the stripes. It gives Phelps room to lean towards the light, Schubert suggests. The expectation is that he will race them all in prelims but turn up for the finals of those races that he intends to target in Beijing.

So, stroke by stroke, day by day, we will see the Bowman-Phelps Blueprint unfold before our eyes - and we will be better able to assess where the records will tumble. Not the ones on the instant clock but those that are measured in milestones, that tick to time itself and make mortals immortal in the pantheon of sporting greats.

Beyond Spitz, there are myriad other hurdles that Phelps could sail over:

- Shane Gould (AUS) is the only female swimmer to win five solo medals at one Games. Phelps matched the feat in Athens. Will he try to go beyond?
- Phelps has eight medals from 2004. Another eight would leave him 2 shy of the all-time record of gymnast Larysa Latynina (URS), with London 2012 already calling, but a total of 15 is the record among men, so watch out gymnast Nikolai Andrianov (URS)
- 9 is the record number of gold medals won in finals that is shared by Paavo Nurmi (FIN, track and field); Latynina, Spizt and Carl Lewis (USA, track and field). Phelps needs five golds in Beijing to exceed that count (the relay gold from heats in Athens is best not counted in the context of how the other legends picked up their points)
- 8 is the record gold medals won by any athlete in solo events, the standard held by Ray Ewry (USA, track and field), 1900-1908. Phelps has four and could match Ewry (if not exceed him) in Beijing.

As for Spitz's tally, Schubert said: 'I feel we all thought it was very possible in '04. I think we all think it's very possible in Beijing, but I think '04 and Melbourne showed that it still has to be done.' At Melbourne 2007, Phelps won seven gold medals but was the disqualification of the medley relay in the heats kept him from exceeding the Spitzean tally in the trial for the Games in Beijing. The moment reminded observers that the gift of seven golds is not only in the hands of Phelps but the fate of relays. Being American may sometimes appear on paper to guarantee relay gold but the deed still has to be done.

The Speedo million is still on offer but Phelps, who has never stated that he wants to match Spitz's seven and keeps his goals close to his chest and Bowman's ear, is not one to set limits. He said earlier this year: 'I don't think anything is too high. The only way to limit yourself is if you limit yourself. (Coach) Bob (Bowman) has really helped me understand that the sky is the limit. The more you use your imagination, the further you'll go.'

Experience can be a boon and a burden. Phelps has proven time and again that where there's light and dark, he turns his back to the shade. 'After everything I've been through the last four years, I think it'll help me prepare a little bit better for these Games and understand what's going to happen,' Phelps says.

Beyond Superfish, Schubert said that the world medley records set by Stephanie Rice (AUS) at Australia's trials could be among world records that fall, courtesy of Natalie Coughlin and Katie Hoff. Bodysuited Rice clocked 2:08.92 and 4:31.46 in the 200m and 400m medley in March

Schubert said: 'Natalie Coughlin threw the gauntlet down in the 200I/M. She hadn't swum it for five years and, this year she broke the American record (2:09.77) three weeks ago. Most of the coaches in the country feel potentially it's her best event because she doesn't have a bad stroke and she's so dominant off the wall. And then you have someone like Katie Hoff who has really been lighting it up in every event, as well as some potentially outstanding young swimmers such as Caitlin Leverenz. I think that could be one of the more hotly contested meets and I think it will take well under the American record to make the Olympic team.'

Schubert concluded: 'The Aussies have certainly set the bar for the rest of the world with their trials. We hope to reset some of those bars but I'm sure some will remain standing going into Beijing.'