BEIJING - Cancer-stricken Eric Shanteau, a Parkview grad, made his Olympic debut Tuesday night, easily advancing out of the 200-meter breaststroke preliminaries just a couple weeks before he will undergo surgery.
Carrying the hopes of cancer survivors he's heard from since going public with his diagnosis last month, the former Auburn University swimmer smoothly stroked his way through the four-lap race and qualified seventh in 2:10.29.
'This was the longest day of my life,' he said. 'That's why I'm glad finals are in the morning because you wake up, you race and you're not sitting around thinking about it all day.'
Defying conventional medical wisdom, Shanteau decided to put off surgery to compete in the Olympics, but only after being checked repeatedly to make sure the cancer wasn't spreading and threatening his chances of a full recovery.
The 24-year-old swimmer from Lilburn found out he had testicular cancer just weeks before last month's U.S. trials, where he upset Brendan Hansen to earn a trip to China.
'It was weird walking on deck,' Shanteau said. 'I was totally clear - not too many nerves, excited, but pretty calm. It almost didn't feel like the Olympic Games. That was probably good in a sense.'
He moves on to the semifinals Wednesday morning, with finals on Thursday morning.
Shanteau and the rest of the world's top swimmers got the spotlight to themselves on a Michael Phelps-less night at the pool.
With Phelps off snoozing at the athletes' village ahead of two finals Wednesday, his teammates set him up to claim another gold medal by qualifying fastest in the 800 free relay.
David Walters, Ricky Berens, Erik Vendt and Klete Keller combined for a time of 7:4.66 seconds, lowering the old Olympic record of 7:07.05 set by Australia at the 2000 Sydney Games.
Their effort guaranteed lane 4 for Phelps and the rest of the relay team, which goes for its second consecutive Olympic title in a U.S.-dominated event.
The Americans finished a whopping 3.18 seconds ahead of second-place Italy, making another gold for Phelps seemingly inevitable. He is 3-for-3 in his events so far.
'We knew we were going to put up a fast time, we just didn't want to screw it up,' Vendt said. 'We were about as safe as you can get. I basically waited until they touched the wall before I even started my windup.'
Vendt was inspired for his swim by watching Shanteau.
'He's just a great guy,' he said. 'The fact he even went through that at trials and still came out on top way he did says so much about who he is and what he is.'
Standing behind the starting block for the 200 breaststroke, looking down the length of the pool, Shanteau said he had a realization.
'You hype it up so much in your head and then you get out there and you're like, 'Wow, this is just another meet, I'm here to do the same thing. It's no different,' he said. 'But at the same time that was still a dream come true for me just to be able to race in the games.'
Hungary's Daniel Gyurta qualified quickest in 2:08.68, erasing Japan's Kosuke Kitajima's Olympic record from four years ago in Athens. Italy's Paolo Bossini was second at 2:08.98 and teammate Loris Facci was third.
Kitajima, the defending champion seeking a sweep of the breaststroke events in Beijing, qualified sixth-fastest in 2:08.89. America's Scott Spann also moved on in 10th.
Shanteau was encouraged by his time, which was just off his personal best.
'The first one is always the worst one to get under your belt. I'm just glad that one is over with,' he said. 'I'm right where I need to be. It was tough race, but I know there's a little bit more in there.'
Fresh off his stunning anchor leg in the victorious 400-meter freestyle relay, American Jason Lezak advanced in the 100 free preliminaries.
Lezak has some work to do, though, if the 32-year-old Californian is going to make the 100 free final. He moved into the semifinals as 11th-fastest, with a time of 48.33 seconds.
That was considerably slower than the amazing 46.06 anchor leg he swam to lead the U.S. to a world record and gold medal in Monday's relay. He outtouched former world record-holder Alain Bernard of France at the wall, barely preserving Phelps' run at Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in a single Olympics.
'It was definitely difficult because last night was a finals situation,' Lezak said. 'I really didn't have the focus I did yesterday. I was just looking to get out of my heat. I've got more races ahead of me that are more important.'
Four years ago in Athens, Lezak surprisingly failed to get out of the 100 free prelims.
'I just wanted to get to the semifinals and not make the same mistakes as Athens, so I went out hard,' he said.
Australia's Eamon Sullivan, who broke the world record on the relay's leadoff leg Monday, was fastest of all, at 47.80.
'I think emotionally it probably did take a little bit out of me, but I've been very careful about what I've been doing and reacting to that,' he said. 'Just play it down and enjoy the moment and focus on the days ahead. That's why I was trying to hold back a little bit, so I didn't blow my tank and I can swim fast tomorrow morning.'
Stefan Nystrand of Sweden was second-quickest in 47.83, followed by Canada's Brent Hayden (47.84) and Bernard (47.85).
'I'm fourth, knowing that at the end I slowed down a bit, so everything's cool,' Bernard said. 'It was hard after losing the race yesterday. But afterwards, I realized I am happy with the silver medal.'
Two-time defending champion Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands moved on in fifth with a time of 47.97.
Like Lezak, Garrett Weber-Gale was trying to come down from the emotional high of the relay that had the Water Cube still buzzing a day later. Weber-Gale held the eighth spot at 48.19 in an event that no American has won since Matt Biondi in 1988.
'I was so excited the whole day. It was just truly spectacular,' he said. 'Now we need to move on and swim fast. I know I'm capable of doing a lot, and that's what I plan on doing.'
Fabien Gilot, who joined Bernard on the French relay, also advanced. South African sprint star Ryk Neethling did not, finishing 32nd.
The mostly Chinese fans at the Water Cube cheered overtime when Liu Zige turned in the fastest qualifying time in the women's 200 butterfly. She touched in 2:06.46, with teammate Jiao Liuyang fourth.
Defending champion Otylia Jedrzejczak of Poland moved on to the semifinals in fifth. Americans Kathleen Hersey (7th) and Elaine Breeden (9th) also advanced.