If Michael Phelps has to deliver that essay late at Towson High, at least he'll know it has grade-A content.Two months past his 15th birthday, Phelps is one more solid race away from a historic berth on the U.S. Olympic swim team. The most recent phenom to come out of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, Phelps handled the first two rounds of the 200-meter butterfly with aplomb yesterday, and will work tonight's final from Lane 5 as the second seed.
"I lowered my best time twice today," Phelps said last night. "Now I've got to come back [tonight] and do it one more time."
The top two finishers in each individual event at the United States swim trials will compete in Sydney, Australia, next month. Phelps can become the youngest male to make the U.S. Olympic swim team since 1932, when Ralph Flanagan made it as a 13-year-old.
In yesterday morning's preliminaries, the future of the event met the present, as Phelps swam in the lane next to world-record holder Tom Malchow. The Michigan post-grad set a trials record with a time of 1 minute, 55.67 seconds, and Phelps had the second-best time among the 94 men entered, a personal best of 1:58.61.
"That was good for me," Phelps said. "It gave me a chance to race against him [Malchow], see what he's going to do."
Tonight's final is really two races. Malchow is the odds-on favorite; Phelps will go in with a slight edge over Auburn's Jeff Somensatto and a bigger one on the rest of the field. Phelps won the first semifinal last night, in 1:58.24, which made him the seventh-fastest American ever.
In the second semifinal, Somensatto was second in 1:58.48, behind Malchow.
"We've been trying to get him prepared mentally for this for four months now," said Bob Bowman, the NBAC coach who tutors Phelps. "Today could not have gone better. He's relaxing well in the first half of his races, and holding his splits in the second half. That's why he's so successful. He's staying relaxed."
How cool is Phelps, who will be a sophomore at Towson High?
In between his two personal bests at the Indiana University Natatorium, he napped for more than three hours at his hotel. He'll attempt the same routine today, with a light morning workout in lieu of an early race.
Timonium's Beth Botsford will not get the chance to defend her Olympic title in the women's 100 backstroke, as she finished last in the eight-woman final. Botsford, who's midway through her collegiate career at the University of Arizona, was timed in 1:02.81, more than a second off her personal best.
Botsford set an American short-course record in the 200 backstroke at the NCAA championships, and will take a shot at that event next week.
"I'm not in any way upset," Botsford said after last night's final. "I definitely like doing the 200 [backstroke] a lot more. I'm going to take two days, relax, and get ready."
Botsford's race was the first of four finals last night, and it produced the happiest Olympian here, B. J. Bedford. Third in the trials in the event four years ago, she won last night in 1:01.85. She'll go to Sydney; her fiance, Tom Sorenson, is the first alternate on the U.S. men's volleyball team.
"I am overwhelmed, excited and effervescent," said Bedford, who's 27. "This is an unbelievable feeling. I don't think I'll be able to absorb this for four or five years."
Megan Quann, 16, took the women's 100 breaststroke, with an American record, 1:07.26.
Texan Josh Davis eclipsed Matt Biondi's 12-year-old record in the 200 freestyle. Davis, who won three gold medals, touched in 1:47.26. Lenny Krayzelburg scared his world record of 53.60 in the 100 backstroke for the second time in as many days, and touched in 53.84. Neil Walker, who missed an Olympic berth by a hundredth of a second in 1996, got second this time.