Phelps will try to qualify for Olympics in the grueling 400 IM

OMAHA, Neb. — It's on: Michael Phelps will seek to qualify for the London Olympics in the 400-meter individual medley Monday morning, a grueling event that he just can't seem to quit.

The event will open the trials here, as well as the Games themselves in July. Phelps owns the race, or at least the national and world records for it, but he enters the trials seeded third, to his prime rival Ryan Lochte and the swimmer who said this weekend that he doubted the Baltimore swimmer would try to qualify in it, Tyler Clary.

Phelps himself kept silent on his plans for the medley, as he has for his entire line-up for the trials and his fourth and final Olympics, seemingly enjoying the guessing game he triggered. By early Sunday afternoon, though, he had shaved the monumental mustache he had grown in recent weeks, posting a before-and-after picture on his Twitter account, part of the hair removal ritual that swimmers undergo to prepare for racing.

He had to pull out of the race by Sunday evening, and didn't. There is still a chance he could scratch after the morning preliminaries, which begin at 11 a.m., and opt not to swim in the finals in the evening.

That Phelps wants to compete in swimming's most demanding race in his final Olympics signals that he wants to exit big, rather than safe. Phelps vowed he wouldn't swim the taxing race after Beijing, but he continued returning to it in both international and Grand Prix competitions.

He and Bob Bowman, his coach, have said he likely will swim in six or seven events, which probably would include some relays. At the trials, which run through July 2, he also signed up for the 200 IM, the 100 and 200 butterflies, the 100 and 200 freestyles and the 200 back, although he is expected to scratch some of those.

Hoff won’t do 400 IM

The women's 400 IM, also scheduled for Monday, had a bit of intrigue of its own. Katie Hoff, who holds the American record in the event, let drop Saturday that she won't try to qualify for London in the event.

Hoff, who trained at North Baltimore Aquatic Club in the years leading up to the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, said she is turning her attention to fewer events these days. After tearing up the pool in the 2008 trials — she was the only woman to qualify in all 13 events — she acknowledged that her Beijing program was exhausting. Entering five individual events plus a relay, she won a silver and two bronze medals.

“I'm more focused,” Hoff said of her current mindset. “I've zeroed my focus in on a couple events.”

Hoff said she will swim in the 200 and 400 freestyles.

Hoff has coach-hopped a bit, and recently returned to Paul Yetter, her coach for much of her time at NBAC, who is now training swimmers at T2 Aquatics in Naples, Fla. In between, she worked with Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, and Jon Urbancheck at the Fullerton, Calif., Aquatics Sports Team. Hoff's parents still live in the Baltimore area.

Now 23, Hoff says she's much more relaxed than her younger, more anxious self, shackled as she was with the “female Phelps” label and all the expectations that go along with that.

“I was so worried, what if I didn't make the team? What would people say?” she said, remembering the dread she felt approaching the 2008 trials. “Now, I'm going to go out there, whatever is going to happen is going to happen.”

Phelps’ impact felt

On the eve of the eight-day competition, swimming officials reveled in how their sport has grown in popularity, thanks in large part to Phelps and his riveting Beijing performance, which national team director Frank Busch called “the most impressive Olympics of anyone in history.”

The trials themselves have become a major sporting event, drawing a record attendance of 160,000 in 2008, when they were also held in Omaha.

This year's attendance could be even greater, if only because the number of swimmers competing has grown, and surely they'll bring even more family and friends to watch them. More than 1,800 swimmers are entered in the trials, compared to about 1,250 four years ago.

“This is a special time for a special sport, and we're all lucky enough to be a part of it,” Busch said.

While he and other USA Swimming officials credited current stars, and the rivalry between Phelps and Lochte, they also sought to highlight up-and-coming swimmers, including perhaps the brightest of them, the 17-year-old Missy Franklin.

The effervescent Franklin, who apparently finds much of life quite “awesome,” said she handles the growing spotlight by staying focused on the people closest to her.

“I think the expectations are definitely higher, and that does make it a little bit more difficult,” she said. “But the expectations from the people who really matter most to me — my coach, my family and friends — are all just for me to go out there and have fun. Those are the expectations I want to live up to, the people I love and care about.”

Having just finished her junior year in high school, college coaches who are no doubt itching to recruit her are instead giving her space to focus on the trials and Olympics instead, she said.

Scouting Franklin

Two coaches who likely wouldn't mind having Franklin on their college teams will be heading the men's and women's Olympic squads: Greg Troy of Florida and Teri McKeever of California.

On Sunday, they talked about how carefully they wanted to shepherd the young talent's career, anticipating it could span multiple Olympics.

“If we do things right, Missy is going to be a figure like a Ryan or a Natalie [Coughlin] or a Michael,” McKeever, who coaches Coughlin, said.

Troy, who is also Lochte's coach, agreed.

“She's got a tremendous future, a great, bright young star. We're very cognizant she is a young lady and she's got a long way to go,” he said. “I think we put too much pressure on people too young to be something other than what they are. She has some of the same characteristics you see in Ryan, Michael and Natalie. She's a great racer.”

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