INDIANAPOLIS – Michael Phelps has a sense of how his transformation from greatest middle-distance swimmer to sprinter is going. He’ll have to prove it at the U.S. national championships, where there’s more at stake than just titles.
For Phelps and more than 800 other American swimmers, spots on the U.S. team for the world championships in Rome later this month are up for grabs beginning Tuesday.
The 14-time Olympic gold medallist is competing in four events, with his first two on Wednesday, the 200-metre freestyle and 200 butterfly. Phelps is the world record holder in both events.
It’s his biggest meet since returning from a nine-month break after the Beijing Olympics that included a three-month suspension for appearing in a photograph using a marijuana pipe.
“I’m back to where I want to be and probably a little faster,” he said Monday before practice at the Indiana University Natatorium pool where he made his first U.S. Olympic team as a 15-year-old in 2000.
A lot has changed since Phelps first walked into the pool as a scrawny kid from Baltimore with no buzz around him. Now he requires security guards, photographers shoot his every move, volunteers position themselves to sneak a peek, and young swimmers as unknown as Phelps once was clamour for his autograph.
Winning a record eight gold medals in Beijing will do that. Nearly a year later, Phelps is remaking himself with a focus on the shorter events as he heads toward the 2012 London Olympics, his final games before retirement.
He’s dumped the 200 and 400 individual medleys from his Beijing program.
“I don’t want to classify myself as a sprinter,” he said. “I always thought swimming the shorter events would be easier. It’s not. It’s a big thing I’ve had to get used to.”
He’s also experimenting with a new freestyle stroke, using a windmill-like motion mixed with his normal bent-at-the-elbow technique.
Phelps swims the 100 fly on Thursday and the 100 free on Friday.
His biggest challenge figures to be in the 100 free. Phelps has the leading seed time – barely ahead of Cesar Cielo of Brazil, the co-bronze medallist from Beijing. His Olympic teammates Garrett Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones and Nathan Adrian are entered, along with Fred Bousquet of France.
“People will look at the 100 free now as more exciting or a new spectacle because Michael is in it,” Weber-Gale said.
Cielo and Bousquet are among some of the top foreigners competing in the meet, although they cannot swim in the ‘A’ final even if they post the fastest qualifying times. They will be bumped to the ‘B’ consolation final.
So any head-to-head showdowns between them and Phelps will have to wait until Rome, if he indeed qualifies in the event. The top two finishers in each event make the world team.
Phelps is most interested in his butterfly results. He came close to erasing Ian Crocker’s world record in the 100 fly with a personal-best time of 50.48 seconds in Montreal two weeks ago.
The 200 fly represents what he calls “unfinished business.”
“It’s a race I’m not 100 per cent satisfied with,” he said. “That’s one thing I’d like to improve on.”
As always, Phelps is keeping his goals to himself and coach Bob Bowman. Even his mother, Debbie, who is pinning her hopes for an Italian vacation on her son’s performance, doesn’t know.
“You’re never going to get specifics out of me until it’s finished,” he said. “If I don’t make the team, I’ll just send her there this summer.”
Ryan Lochte, Phelps’ friend and rival, is going all in this week. He’s entered in six events, including the 200 free against Phelps.
Dara Torres, who won three silver medals in Beijing, is nursing an ailing knee, but the 42-year-old will try the 50 and 100 freestyles.
Katie Hoff is still adjusting to new coach Bowman, whom she switched to after winning a silver and two bronze medals in Beijing. Like Phelps, she dropped the 200 and 400 individual medleys and is competing in the 100, 200, 400 and 800 freestyles.
“I look at this year as a transition year,” she said. “I just needed a change and the year after the Olympics is the best time.”
Three weeks ago, a virus prevented Hoff from competing in Santa Clara, Calif. She needed a week to rest and recover, but now says she’s fine.
Hoff made a name for herself on the international stage as a 16-year-old at the 2005 world championships in Montreal, sweeping both IM events while setting national age group records and swimming on the victorious 800 free relay team.
Dagny Knutson could play that role this time. The 17-year-old budding star from Minot, N.D., won’t have Hoff to contend with in the IM races, although they will meet in the 100 free.
Hoff thinks the U.S. team could include some fresh faces like Knutson.
“You get a lot of people who are (ticked) off at not making the Olympic team,” she said. “This is the perfect time for new faces to burst on the scene.”
Swimming’s most familiar face is clean-shaven this week. Phelps recently got rid of the Fu Manchu moustache he was sporting.
His presence, though, ensures continued attention on a sport whose profile used to dip in non-Olympic years. Because of Phelps, NBC is televising four days of the meet on its Universal Sports and main networks. The pool deck is dressed up with curtains and carpeting not typically used for nationals.