AUSTIN, Texas - The competition in the American Short Course Championships yesterday produced a rarity, a final that Michael Phelps had about zero chance of winning.
Phelps' only event was the 200-yard breaststroke. The breaststroke is Phelps' weakest stroke. In the morning, preliminary swim, he finished in sixth place, behind even a couple of 16-year-old high schoolers.
And they weren't even his real competition in the final. The overwhelming favorite was Brendan Hansen, a former University of Texas swimmer who is the U.S. record-holder in the event and the bronze medalist in the 200-meter version of the race in the 2004 Athens Olympics.
"He owns that event," Phelps said.
"The people are here to see Michael and he's swimming the breast," said Longhorns coach Eddie Reese. "But that's how you fix things. You've got to swim it in a meet, and they've done a good job of fixing it."
Hansen won easily in 1 minute, 54.19 seconds. Phelps was third in 1:58.31.
"We were just looking for a personal best or anything close to it," said Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach, who is now at the University of Michigan.
"He swims it once a year. It's a little variety. It's good to be at a meet where he doesn't have to swim his best events."
Bowman said Phelps' best time for the 200 breaststroke is 1:57.6.
Phelps laughed. "This is some more indications about where we are in training. I know I'm not in the best shape I've been in, but to be a little over my best time is not bad. But it shows that I'm not fully capable of finishing a race the way I want to right now."
The stroke is important for Phelps not so much for its own sake, but because it is one of the four strokes used in the 200 and 400 individual medleys.
Phelps' friendly rival in the 100 butterfly, Ian Crocker, is, like a lot of swimmers, good at three of the four strokes.
"My breaststroke is so terrible it keeps me out of the IM," Crocker said.
Of Phelps' ability to swim all the strokes well, Crocker said: "I think he's on a completely different level in a lot of ways. I don't think even his coach, Bob Bowman, can explain the difference physically between him and other swimmers."
Phelps will be in more comfortable territory today. He'll swim the 100 freestyle and the 200 IM. The 100 free could be a race as the field will likely include Crocker and Neil Walker.