Phelps kicks off year with wins in Alabama

Road to Athens starts with long-course victories in 200 IM, 100 freestyle

Swimming

January 18, 2004|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

AUBURN, Ala. - The public address announcer paused for effect when he got to Lane 5 in the 200-meter individual medley yesterday at the James E. Martin Aquatics Center.

"A man who needs no introduction," the announcer began, "but we're going to do it anyway."

After a rushed recap of his many distinctions from 2003, Michael Phelps opened the Olympic year with more of the same. His victories in the 200 IM and 100 freestyle spiced what was supposed to be a routine dual meet between Auburn, the nation's premier college swim program, and Southern California.

Other than the gimmicky Qantas Skins last November in Sydney, Australia, it was Phelps' first meet in the Olympic (50-meter pool) format since last August, when he completed a life-altering summer with an unprecedented five titles at the U.S. Summer Nationals in College Park.

That's where Phelps posted his personal bests in both the 100 free, 49.19 seconds, and the 200 IM, in which he lowered the world record for a fourth time in six weeks, to 1:55.94.

Yesterday, Phelps would have been happy to break 1:58 and approach his first world mark in the event he has come to own. Instead, he settled for a win in 1:59.54.

That might not sound impressive, given the heights to which he has raised the bar in the event, but no other American has ever gone faster.

Kevin Clements, a former Auburn star, current Phelps training partner and second-fastest American ever, was second, but nearly three seconds back.

Trailing Auburn junior Ryan Wochomurka at the 50 wall, Phelps had trouble with the turn, but still roared back to take the 100 freestyle in 50.55.

Given that Phelps is recovering from a cold, it made for a satisfying 2004 debut.

"I never thought I'd be where I am in this event in such a short time," he said of the 100 freestyle, in which his credentials figure to earn him a berth in the 400 freestyle relay in Athens. "I did want to go faster in the 200 IM. Setting a high goal is necessary. Not achieving it is just going to give me a little more fire."

It's good to be Phelps, an 18-year-old who is the athlete most likely to lead the individual Olympic medal count come summer.

It's also good to be one of his teammates, as 17 pals from the North Baltimore Aquatic Club escaped winter back home for three nights.

The trip is providing valuable experience for the club's youngest members here, both of whom have qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials next July in Long Beach, Calif.

Courtney Kalisz, 13, took third in the women's 200-meter backstroke behind Auburn's Kirsty Coventry, a world championships veteran.

Katie Hoff, her 14-year-old training partner in Harford County, posted three personal bests as she took third in the 200 IM and lowered her own national age-group record to 2:16.24, fourth in the 100 freestyle in 58.07 and led off the 800 relay in 2:05.25, four seconds faster than her previous best in the 200 freestyle.

The 800 relays ended with some gritty racing by two area high school seniors.

In the women's race, three-time Canadian Olympian Marianne Limpert got the NBAC a lead on the third leg. Meghan Sackett, a Dulaney High student who's headed to the University of Maryland, protected it by holding off the surge of Coventry.

Clements led off for the NBAC men, and Phelps got more than a four-second lead on the second leg. Friends School sophomore Nico Zebley was overhauled on the third leg by Auburn, then USC.

The NBAC got second when Cory Knopp, who goes to Aberdeen High, caught the USC anchor at the wall for a well-earned second place.

"That was intense," Knopp said. "Being able to swim with Kevin and Michael is an honor and a privilege. They go so fast, you don't want to let them down."

In a two-day meet that will conclude today, Auburn's reigning NCAA men's and women's champions held sizable leads over both USC and the NBAC.

The Women of Troy held a slim, 81-77 margin over the NBAC, while the Trojans had a 98-62 advantage over the NBAC's five-man contingent.

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