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Olympic spotlight to burn on Phelps

Michael Phelps' epic pursuit of Mark Spitz. The ongoing rivalry between the American and Australian women. Prime-time television coverage back in America. Those elements add up to swimming making quite a splash at the Beijing Olympics.

With Phelps, Katie Hoff and self-described "old lady" Dara Torres leading the way, the pool promises to be the hottest ticket at the games.

Fittingly, Phelps' second attempt at surpassing Spitz will take place in one of Beijing's coolest Olympic venues - the Water Cube.

Known officially as the National Aquatics Center, the Water Cube's design and its translucent, blue-toned outside skin make it look like a cube of bubbles or "bubble wrap."

The outside skin is made of Teflon-like material. Composed of two layers, it's separated by an interior passage that allows the building, which seats 17,000, to breathe like a greenhouse.

Four years ago in Athens, Phelps tied the record for medals at one Olympics with six golds and two bronzes. The only thing that eluded him: Spitz's record of seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Games.

"You guys talk about that," Phelps told reporters. "I just get in the water and do what I love to do, and that's compete."

And he'll be doing it in prime-time.

The swimming finals will be held in the morning, a switch made at the request of NBC so the races can be shown live at night in the States.

Spitz endorsed Phelps at the recent U.S. trials as a worthy successor, suggesting that after 36 years, it's time for someone else to take his mantle.

Phelps is now 23, making it highly probable that this games will be his final run at becoming the greatest Olympian of all time. In 2012, his body will be perhaps less likely to recover as easily from swimming multiple events over eight days. In Beijing, Phelps will swim in five individual events and all three relays.

And he's giving every indication he'll top his Athens performance after breaking world records in the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys at the U.S. trials.

"He's a performer," U.S. head coach and general manager Mark Schubert said. "As the stage gets bigger, his performances get better."

Phelps' grueling program opens with the 400 IM, a race requiring all four strokes. Awaiting him in both IMs is teammate Ryan Lochte.

If Phelps equals or breaks Spitz's record, he will earn a $1 million bonus from his swimsuit sponsor.

Of course, Phelps won't be a one-man show in Beijing.

When he's not in the pool, his U.S. teammates will be strong medal contenders in their own right.

Hoff will be nearly as busy as the guy she considers her pseudo older brother. The 19-year-old from the same North Baltimore club that produced Phelps earned a spot in five individual races and at least one relay. She set the world record in the 400 IM at the U.S. trials.

"If I could overall do very well, then I'll be happy," Hoff said. "To me that would be being seen as an overall very strong competitor and consistent throughout many events. That would be really cool."