IRVINE, Calif. -- Standing at the starting blocks last night at the U.S. nationals, roughly 45 minutes apart, Katie Hoff and Michael Phelps couldn't have looked more different had they tried.
Hoff, for all her international experience, still fidgets at a furious pace before each race. From the moment she walks on the pool deck, until just before she enters the water, Hoff flutters like a hummingbird. She flaps her arms, adjusts her goggles, scratches her face, pounds her leg muscles with her fists, waves to the crowd, then channels all that nervous energy into the task at hand.
Phelps, on the other hand, possesses all the emotional range of a secret service agent when he strides to the blocks. Head down, jaw clenched, his iPod headphones dangling from his ears, Phelps stretches his limbs quickly, almost violently, and acknowledges no one.
In the pool, however, the two look awfully similar, especially these days. Most of that, though, is Hoff's doing. The Towson teenager just keeps getting better - and faster.
Hoff just narrowly missed a world record in the 200-meter individual medley yesterday at the USA Swimming National Championships, breaking her own American record in the event with a time of 2 minutes, 10.05 seconds. She then turned around less than 20 minutes later and nearly stole the 400-meter freestyle title, finishing second by the thinnest of margins (.08 of a second) to Kate Ziegler .
"I'm so excited to have gotten the best time." Hoff said. "Pan Pacs is going to be even better. That world record is my goal, and I'm right there."
Phelps went out and won the 400-meter IM in the day's final event, holding off a late challenge from Ryan Lochte to win with a time of 4:10.16 , but he wasn't exactly thrilled with his performance. Phelps needed to find an extra gear in the final 20 meters to hold off Lochte, and for a few seconds it looked like he might not have it.
"In all, that was a pretty disappointing swim." Phelps said. "I'm not happy at all with how that meet started. I feel like it should have been faster. That's how it goes. Ryan had a great swim. I didn't know how much Ryan had left in the tank. I was going to make it hurt as much as possible, to get to the wall first."
Phelps, of Rodgers Forge, said this week that he's worked extremely hard this past year, rededicating himself to the sport after last summer's disappointing (by his standards) performance at the FINA World Championships. But he admitted yesterday that he's not yet where he wants to be.
"The last 200 [meters] was real bad." Phelps said. "It's better than it was last year, but by no means where we want it to be. I felt fine this morning. The only stroke that felt good tonight was the fly. Maybe that means the fly is in good shape. But obviously things are nowhere near where they should be."
Brendan Hansen provided the rest of the excitement for the first day, breaking his own world record in the 100-meter breast stroke, easily winning with a time of 59.13 . Hansen is the first American to simultaneously hold the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke world records since John Hencken in 1974.