MONTREAL - Before every race at the FINA World Championships, held this year at Parc Jean-Drapeau, the competitors are introduced one at a time to the crowded stadium in both French and English.
Many of the swimmers choose to smile, and most wave to the crowd or to the camera, but Michael Phelps did neither before last night's 200-meter freestyle final. He simply stared straight ahead, his jaw clenched, his emotions hidden.
Focused and determined, Phelps swam the fastest 200 freestyle of his career, finishing in 1 minute, 45.20 seconds, easily holding off Australia's Grant Hackett by nearly a second to earn his second individual gold medal of these championships.
Phelps' start wasn't perfect, and neither was his finish, but in the interim, he dominated. His time at 100 meters (51.13) actually had him slightly ahead of the world-record time, set by Australia's Ian Thorpe in 2001, but a mediocre final turn forced the 20-year-old from Rodgers Forge to settle for breaking his own American record.
He's still on pace to match the seven medals he won during his break-out performance at the world championships in Barcelona in 2003.
"I'm pretty happy with it," Phelps said. "I think I slowed up a little bit going into the third wall, but I came home strong and was able to finish up well."
Phelps has focused intensely on the 200 freestyle in the past year. At the Olympics in Athens last year, it was the only individual event in which he didn't win gold in, finishing third behind Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands.
Neither Thorpe nor van den Hoogenband is competing in this year's world championships, but last night Phelps may have sent a message to both swimmers that he will be a tougher man to beat when the three meet again in Beijing in 2008.
"When I'm able to stand up against Thorpe and Hoogenband again, then it will be a better challenge," Phelps said.
And did he suspect the pair was back at home watching?
"I'm sure if they're like me, they're watching all the results," Phelps said. "They're great competitors, and hopefully I'll have my chance to race them."
Ryk Neethling of South Africa led the race after the first 50 meters and finished third, but it was clear that Phelps' main challenger was Hackett.
Hackett entered the race with a bit of a disadvantage, however, having raced in an 800 freestyle preliminary in the morning while Phelps had the morning off. The Australian closed strong, moving from fourth to second over the final 100 meters, but he had no chance of catching Phelps.
"I knew [Hackett] was going to finish strong," Phelps said. "I saw him at the 100, and I was just hoping I had what it takes to hold him off."
Said Hackett: "It's good to see Michael back in top form."
Overall, it was another strong day for American swimmers besides Phelps.
Aaron Peirsol and Randall Bal finished first and second, respectively, in the 100 backstroke, and 17-year-old Kate Ziegler scored an impressive victory in the 1,500 freestyle.
Natalie Coughlin, the world-record holder in the 100 backstroke, finished third behind Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry and Germany's Antje Buschschulte, but the United States still leads the overall medal standings with 12.
Australia is second with eight medals, including four golds.
Katie Hoff, 16, of Towson swam a career-best time in the 200 freestyle semifinals (1:59.36) but just missed qualifying for the finals by .01 of a second, finishing ninth out of 16 swimmers.
"It was my best time, so I can't complain," Hoff said. "I kind of had a rough final turn."
Mostly, however, the day again belonged to Phelps. And if nothing else, he likely won't have to answer any more questions about his first-day performance, when he failed to make it out of the preliminaries of the 400 freestyle.
The media have repeatedly asked Phelps to pin down why things started off so badly, so last night he resorted to Texas Hold'em poker analogies.
"I was talking with [U.S. coach] Dave Salo, and we talk about poker a lot," Phelps said. "He said, `Just think of that [400 freestyle] like you had ace-king, and you got beat by eight-three. Using little terminology like that helps, I think."
Today: 100-meter freestyle (preliminaries, semifinals); 200 individual medley (preliminaries, semifinals).
Tomorrow: 100 freestyle (finals); 200 individual medley (finals).
Friday: 100 butterfly (preliminaries, semifinals); 800 freestyle relay (semifinals, finals).
Saturday: 100 butterfly (finals).
Sunday: 400 medley relay (semifinals, finals).
Tomorrow: 800 freestyle relay (semifinals, finals).
Sunday: 400 individual medley (semifinals, finals).