Phelps flies past Crocker to pull upset in 100 meters

Hoff dominates 400 IM, posts 8th-best time ever


IRVINE, Calif. -- When you're the best in the world, confidence can be as important as technique and conditioning. And so it's pretty rare to hear Michael Phelps concede that another swimmer is superior, especially in one of Phelps' stronger events.

But bring up Ian Crocker's name, and Phelps will shrug his shoulders and make a difficult, but honest, concession. As fast as Phelps is in the 100-meter butterfly, Crocker is usually faster.

"Ian has proved that he is the best in the 100 fly," Phelps said.

Last night at the William Woollett Jr. Aquatic Center, however, it was Phelps, not Crocker, standing on top of the podium when it was all said and done.

Crocker - who owns the world record in the event and beat Phelps handily last summer when the two faced off at the FINA World Championships - didn't get out to his usual strong start, and Phelps pounced. The Rodgers Forge native pulled ahead of Crocker in the final 40 meters and out-touched Crocker at the wall with a time of 51.51 seconds to grab his fourth national title of the 2006 U.S. National Championships, and the 31st of his career. Crocker finished just behind with a time of 51.71.

"Ian and I are going to have many races like that," Phelps said. "When we race each other, we bring the best out in one another."

If nothing else, it was an important psychological victory for Phelps, who lately has been lagging behind in one of swimming's best rivalries. In his own words, he "wasn't even a factor" in the 100-meter butterfly last summer in Montreal when Crocker beat him by 1.2 seconds, and set the world record with a time of 50.40. Phelps called the event a "huge wake-up call" and vowed to use it as motivation this season.

It was hard to tell whether last night's race was a case of Phelps speeding up, or Crocker slowing down, but either way, it didn't seem to matter to Phelps. He's now beaten Crocker eight times in 11 races, including in the Olympic final in Athens, but Crocker owns seven of the 10 fastest times in history.

"I saw Michael out of the corner of my eye coming back and I knew it was going to be close," Crocker said. "But I'm still happy with the outcome for right now. Pan Pacs [the Pan Pacific championships] is more important. ... It keeps it exciting and keeps us training. It makes me work harder to try and hold him off."

Katie Hoff had no trouble holding off the entire field in the 400-meter individual medley last night, as the 17-year-old North Baltimore Aquatic Club alum turned in yet another outstanding performance, posting a personal best and winning by more than four seconds with a time of 4:35.82. Hoff's swim set a U.S. Open record and was the eighth fastest time in history.

"I'm excited to see what I can do in the next couple weeks," Hoff said. "My backstroke felt really good and strong tonight."

Hoff, a Towson resident was the youngest member of the entire U.S. Olympic team in Athens, has made considerable strides the past two years, and still appears to be tapping into her enormous potential. Last night, the field kept up with her for the first half of the race, but during the third leg, the breaststroke, she simply dominated, pulling away easily from runner-up Ariana Kukors by almost two body lengths.

"I think Kate has been outstanding," said Hoff's coach, Paul Yetter. "She's had lifetime best times in every event at this meet, and that's one of the things you don't always get with an elite-level athlete like Katie. ... She doesn't have a weakness. She's able to go through the first half and the second half of the race without a weakness. What separates an international level IM swimmer from just a pretty good swimmer is that they don't have weaknesses. Compared to a lot of her competitors, she just doesn't have a weak stroke."


Today's races

Michael Phelps

200 IM -- Phelps is the world-record holder in this event.

Courtney Kalisz

200-meter butterfly-- The 16-year-old who trains with Katie Hoff at NBAC has a real chance to win a national title in the event.

[ Kevin Van Valkenburg]

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