For a pair of the nation's top swimmers, the chlorine that was in the air in the Indiana University Natatorium proved to be much thicker than any competitive tensions.
Michael Phelps, from Rodgers Forge, and Towson's Katie Hoff each raced in an "off" event on the opening day of the ConocoPhillips USA Swimming National Championships and while neither walked away with a gold medal yesterday, each posted a personal-best time.
Both competed in an event that isn't included as a regular part of their repertoires as they work to potentially hone the Olympic program each will follow a year from now at the Beijing Olympics.
Hoff, 18, didn't race in the 800-meter freestyle at last year's nationals, and even though she was starting from the lane right next to the world champ, Kate Ziegler, her nerves were never in question before diving in the pool.
"We were joking with each other [beforehand] that we both had to pee," Hoff said about the pair's pre-race conversation.
In a thrilling final, Ziegler maintained a world-record pace for the first half of the race, but Hoff kept up.
Hoff actually took a narrow lead at the 650-meter mark but couldn't maintain it
Ziegler, 19, of Virginia, won by less than 0.5 of a second, finishing in 8 minutes, 22.33 seconds. Hoff touched the wall at the 8:22.80 mark, topping her previous best of 8:33.35.
"Racing the fastest person in the world always brings out the best of you and really gets your competitive juices flowing," Hoff said.
Even though she barely competes in the event, Hoff's time makes her the eighth-fastest performer in the history of the 800 free. She says she's looking to add to her Olympic program, and her performance last night certainly makes the race a good candidate, though Hoff is also considering the 200-meter backstroke. She competes in that event today.
Ziegler, who's positioned to face Hoff at least twice more at the championships, said she would welcome Hoff as a regular competitor in the 800 free field.
"It's always exciting to race the very best in the world, and clearly Katie proved tonight she's up there," Ziegler said.
As for Phelps, this week's competition is one of the rare times he isn't favored every time he steps onto the blocks. In fact, he raced last night in the 200-meter breaststroke's B final, failing to qualify in the morning's preliminaries to be among the top-swimmers for the A final. He said he couldn't remember the last time he was with the B group.
Phelps finished third in his final in 2:15.06, a new personal best, breaking the mark he set earlier in the day, 2:15.81. Before yesterday, Phelps' best in the 200 breaststroke was 2:16.78.
Phelps is dominant in most events but is not a regular in the breaststroke. His coach, Bob Bowman, entered him in the event primarily to strengthen his individual medley.
"If you don't swim breaststroke in a meet like this, you never really test it out the way you want to," Bowman said. "I mean, that was a pretty good swim tonight for him. I think he could do better ... but just to know where he is is good information."
Phelps, 22, seemed pleased with his time, saying: "It's what it is. It's [my] best, like I said, and hopefully that will get my [individual medley] a little better. So that's really the big goal."
Phelps races in nine more events over the next four days, including today's 200-meter backstroke and 400-meter relay. Only three of the remaining six individual events are among his specialties, and his coach said there's no risk of 200 breaststroke popping up in his Beijing program. He's not ruling out, though the 200 backstroke or the 100 free.
Some North Baltimore Aquatic Club finishers besides Hoff include: Ian Rowe, 17, who finished eighth in the 1,500-meter freestyle, 15:34.64; Claire Hutchinson, 20, who finished with the 32nd-best time in the 800 free, 8:52.41; Kailey Morris, 19, who finished 16th in the 200 butterfly, 2:15.47, in the B final; and Felicia Lee, 15, who was 21st in the same event, 2:13.82 in the C final.