For Phelps, switch to 400 sinks at worlds

He misses final for 1st time at international level after finishing 18th in freestyle

July 25, 2005|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

MONTREAL - For so much of his impressive career, Michael Phelps has treated the burdens of pressure and hype like minor annoyances. Questions of how he would handle new challenges were usually answered with an impish yet steely grin and then with another dominant swim in the pool.

As the medals piled up, expectations climbed, higher and higher, until ultimately they may have evolved into something unrealistic. Yesterday, at Parc Jean-Drapeau, Phelps got a rude reminder of just how difficult it is to compete at an elite level at an unfamiliar distance, as he shockingly failed to qualify for the 400-meter freestyle final at the FINA World Championships.

It was the first time Phelps, 20, has failed to advance to a final in international competition.

"I really have no idea what happened," said Phelps, from Rodgers Forge. "All I can say is I definitely wasn't ready for that race, and it showed."

Last year, Phelps won eight medals at the Olympics in Athens, a performance that likely established him as the face of swimming not just in the United States, but also around the world. As a result, Phelps decided to push himself this summer at the world championships, dropping two events where he already holds the world record (the 400 individual medley and the 200 butterfly) and replacing them with two distances (the 100 and 400 freestyle) in which he has little international experience.

Phelps' bold decision also looked like a marketing dream for swimming, because it set up a potential three-way showdown among Phelps and Australians Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett, probably the sport's biggest stars. Thorpe, however, elected to skip the world championships, and Phelps' heavily hyped matchup with Hackett never materialized.

Phelps finished seventh - next to last - in his morning heat with a time of 3 minutes, 50.53 seconds, more than three seconds slower than his personal best and almost six seconds behind Hackett.

Only the eight fastest times advance to the final, and after the second heat, Phelps was 18th out of 57 competitors.

"Not the way I wanted it to start off," Phelps said. "I'm pretty disappointed. I felt good in the warm-up, and then in the race it wasn't there."

Phelps was third at the final turn, but he faded badly over the final 50 meters, then stared up at the scoreboard in disbelief once the race was over.

"I thought he was fine until the last wall," said Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman. "I was shocked when they came off the wall and left him. ... I don't think he's injured, but he didn't excel in the last 50 meters. I thought he was in good position even with 50 meters to go. I'm not sure what that means."

Hackett, already a heavy favorite in the event, went on to easily win gold in the final with a time of 3:42.91, but the 25-year-old Australian acknowledged he was stunned during his morning heat, which came right after Phelps' poor performance.

"Obviously, I'm surprised," Hackett said. "I swam the first 200 meters thinking about it. That's how a big shock it was. The 400 is a very different event than the 200. The 400 probably needs a little more time to prepare. But maybe it was just the first swim of the meet. "

Phelps did earn a measure of redemption in the evening, winning a gold medal as part of the United States' dominant victory in the 400 freestyle relay. It was the first time the United States had captured the relay at the world championships since 1998.

"It's an important race for us, and it's big for us to have it back," Phelps said. "I'm glad I was able to put the [400 freestyle] behind me and move forward."

Phelps will swim in the 200 freestyle today, an event where he earned a bronze medal in Athens.

"Hopefully, I'll be a little more rested in the 200 [not having swum in the 400 final]," Phelps joked.

Katie Hoff, 16, of Abingdon looks like she could be poised for a major international breakthrough in her first world championships after a disappointing Olympics.

Yesterday, Hoff swam the fastest time in the preliminaries and in the semifinals in the 200 individual medley and will be the favorite in tonight's final.

Her semifinal time of 2:11.71 was almost two seconds faster than the next-closest swimmer, Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry.

"It felt really good, and I'm really excited for [tonight]," Hoff said. "My strokes are feeling great, and I'm really confident."

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