INDIANAPOLIS - Michael Phelps climbed onto the starting block for his 200-meter freestyle final and went through his usual cartilage-challenging routine of arm-extended pinwheels and backbreaking handclasps above his shoulder blades.
Then, knowing Canadian Rick Say, starting beside him, would try to press him early, Phelps took off fast. So fast, in fact, he was able to overcome fatigue over the last 35 meters and a near-missed final turn to win his first short course gold medal in national-record time at the FINA Short Course World Swimming Championships at Conseco Fieldhouse.
"Michael and I, our entire focus, has been on the Olympics," said Say, who finished second, 0.80 of a second behind Phelps' winning time of 1:43.59. "It's very difficult to refocus, especially for him, with all the demands he's had. So I wanted to get him out there and see if he was in shape and ready to hurt."
Phelps laughed when he heard that. He wasn't in the greatest shape, he admitted, still panting from his effort.
"But in a short-course race, you can swim in any shape. But he did make me hurt. The last 35 meters, I was definitely in pain. I missed the last wall by five meters. That's why I went out fast. I wanted to have the biggest lead I could before I started dying at the end."
It was the first of five events Phelps will swim this week.
It was a big night for the U.S. swim team as it won all five finals in contention. Though Phelps' performance was the highlight, Kaitlin Sandeno was the big individual winner, taking first in the women's 200 butterfly in 2:06.95 and in the 400 individual medley in 4:30.12.
Abingdon's Katie Hoff, who won her morning heat in the 400 IM, was second to Sandeno in the final, finishing the 16 laps in the 25-meter pool in 4:33.09.
"I was happy," Hoff said. "I swam well in the morning in my first short course competition and I did a personal-best time in this final."
Hoff, who finished seventh in the 200 IM at the Olympics, said she is trying to be more relaxed than in Athens.
"I'm trying to breathe before I race," she said. "This is definitely encouraging for the rest of the week."
The fact that many of the world's best swimmers are not here did not prevent Phelps and company or the event's organizers from celebrating the efforts.
"It's always exciting to step up against the top dogs," Phelps said. "But we put the best team we could together and now we have to step up against the best competition this meet has. The main thing in this event and every event is to have fun."
There was no doubt about the fun that Phelps, Say and U.S. teammate Ryan Lochte had as they accepted their medals. During the presentation, NBA Hall of Famer and Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird presented the traditional flower bouquet.
"Are you kidding?" Phelps said. "He's a legend. When it came time for the photos, I got him to come up on the stage. We've got a picture of the top three `stylers' and Larry Bird. A pretty impressive picture.
"I met and talked to him in April and I was presented a Pacers jersey with the No. 7, and I got him to sign it. When I get my house, I'm going to have a billiard room and that's going to be the first thing that goes up. Until then, it's in a box."
Phelps, who won his morning heat in 1:45.82, was second best in qualifying to Say, who clocked 1:45.15. But he was no sooner out of the pool than he promised more for the evening.
"I have to get more into it," he said. "You guys know I can pop one."
The one he popped made him the fourth-fastest ever in the event and left Say to state the obvious.
"This event is my best event," he said of the 200 freestyle. "I feel I made him race my race. But he's the greatest swimmer the world has ever seen, so it will be hard to win against him anywhere you see him."