A rare 2nd-place finish keeps Phelps inspired

Close call vs. Peirsol shows drive

Hoff 5th



IRVINE, Calif. --There is no doubt that success - and all the spoils that come with it - still motivates Michael Phelps.

Success has earned him millions of dollars, let him travel to the far corners of the world, and made him famous beyond his wildest dreams.

But failure, not success, is what truly inspires him. Phelps doesn't lose many races, yet when he does, the frustration and the anger are impossible to hide. His jaw tightens up, his eyes narrow and he mumbles quietly to himself. Even when he isn't the favorite, Phelps expects to win, and to heck with anyone who thinks differently.

The 21-year-old from Rodgers Forge came into last night's 200-meter backstroke with virtually no chance to win. Aaron Peirsol is the world-record holder in the event, and hasn't lost a race since 2000. But Phelps went out and gave Peirsol a serious challenge anyway, helping produce one of most compelling and entertaining races of this week's U.S. National Championships.

Peirsol was able to hold off Phelps by less than a second with a winning time of 1 minute, 56.36 seconds, breaking Phelps' unbeaten streak of the past week, but with 50 meters left, it was anyone's race. Phelps trailed by just .19 seconds, impressive in its own right when you consider that Phelps rarely swims the 200 backstroke, even in practice, and has never swam the race in international competition.

"That was foreign to me in many respects, and that's good," said Peirsol, 23. "It's been awhile since I've been pushed in that race to that level. He's the only guy in the past five years who has been within a second of me in that race. So any time I get to race him, it's fun. Unfortunately he's pretty booked all the time."

Phelps took his time getting out of the pool yesterday when the race was over and the results were posted. While Peirsol was smiling, shaking hands, drying off and getting ready for a television interview, Phelps was still treading water, grumbling to himself, gazing at the sky, lost in thought.

By the time he met with the media, Phelps had his usual polished smile on, but beneath the surface, it was obvious that even finishing second had left a sour taste in his mouth.

"I guess it's fine for right now," Phelps said. "It makes you hungry, that's for sure. I hate to lose. Having a race like that, if that doesn't motivate you to get back to training, I don't know what will."

The night turned out to be a banner one for the Peirsol family. Aaron Peirsol's younger sister, Hayley, 20, began the night with an impressive and somewhat surprising victory in the 800-meter freestyle, holding off the favorite, Kate Ziegler.

"That's what you live for, racing," Hayley Peirsol said. "It's so much fun. More than anything, it hurts, but it doesn't kill you, so it must make you stronger."

Katie Hoff of Towson also wrapped up a splendid all-around meet with a fifth-place finish in the 100-meter freestyle, an event that is far from her strongest. Hoff, 17, won two national titles and notched a personal best time in every one of her events in either the preliminaries or the finals.

"I'm just getting into sprinting," Hoff said. "It's definitely a different mentality. I'm just learning the turns and stuff. I think I've had a really good meet, and I'm excited for [the Pan Pacific Championships]."

Hoff and Phelps both received the meet's High Point award for outstanding male and female performers.

Felicia Lee and Ian Rowe, both of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, were given the male and female Outstanding Rookie award of the meet.

In one of the meet's final races, Brendan Hansen broke his own world record in the 200-meter breaststroke with a time of 2:08.74.

kevin.vanvalkenburg @baltsun.com

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