Phelps barely misses record


ORLANDO, Fla. -- Michael Phelps collects nicknames the way he does records.

Overseas, he's known as the "Phenom." At USA Swimming headquarters, they call him the "Baltimore Bullet." One of his former Towson High teachers came up with the "Baltimore Barracuda."

How about the "transformer"? The 18-year-old smiled and nodded at the comparison to the small plastic toys that he tinkered with as a boy.

"One minute they're a robot," Phelps said, "then you turned them into a car."

He pulled a similar act at USA Swimming's Spring Nationals last night. One hour he stormed back to win the 100-meter freestyle. The next he turned in a commanding performance in the 200 backstroke, where he posted the second-fastest time ever in the event and added to the schedule permutations he'll ponder as he prepares for the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.

That stirring swim got the crowd going at the YMCA Aquatic Center. Phelps' time was 1 minute, 55.30 seconds, just 15-hundredths off the world record set at this meet two years ago by Aaron Peirsol.

North Baltimore Aquatic Club coach Bob Bowman hopped, hollered and winced at the close call. Phelps leaned on the pool wall and put his swim cap-clad head in his hands.

Was the world record his goal?

"It definitely was," Phelps said. "I won't lie. ... I'm a little disappointed, but happy at the same time."

The 16th and 17th national titles of his career -- in events not on his world championship program last summer -- made him the nation's most honored active male swimmer. That served as a minor footnote after he nearly became the first man to set world records in five events since Mark Spitz, whose 1972 Olympic haul of seven gold medals is the historic benchmark for Phelps.

Like most collegians, Peirsol passed on this meet. The University of Texas star hasn't come close to his world record in the past two years, while Phelps keeps maturing, getting faster and expanding his range. Come tonight, when Phelps will try to raise more eyebrows in the 200 freestyle, the 200 backstroke could be no better than the sixth-best event in his arsenal.

"Stuff like that [the 200 backstroke] doesn't clarify anything," Bowman said. "It makes it more confusing."

More than 4 1/2 seconds faster than the runner-up, Phelps swam a splendid tactical race as he covered the first 100 in 57.09 seconds and the second in 58.21. His previous personal best, a full eight-tenths of a second slower, had come at last August's Summer Nationals.

"Out of the 150 wall, I glanced up at the scoreboard and saw how close I was [.49 seconds to world-record pace]," said Phelps, who is a great closer. "I just cranked it up."

At a time in the training calendar when few international veterans set personal bests, Phelps had another in the 100 freestyle, where the only thing keeping him from going under 49 seconds was a subpar push off the blocks.

With Jason Lezak, the fastest American last year, withdrawing from the event, Phelps easily won, despite being seventh off the blocks and remaining next to last at the midway mark. His time was 49.05 seconds, making him the seventh-fastest American ever in an event in which the world record is 47.84

After the 200 backstroke, Phelps disrupted his warmdown to watch the 200 butterfly final. It's one of the three events in which he's the current world-record holder, but last night he left it to Olympic champion Tom Malchow. Was Phelps let down that some of America's other premier names passed on the meet?

"Not really. You still have competition here," Phelps said. "The ones who are not here will be there in the summer."

That would be at the Olympic trials. Phelps will be there, too, but in which events, who knows?

NOTES: North Baltimore teammates Kevin Clements and Jamie Barone placed second and fifth, respectively, in the 200 breaststroke behind Vladislav Polyakov of Kazakhstan. ... Courtney Kalisz (10th in the 200 butterfly) and Katie Hoff (11th in the 200 breaststroke) became the first swimmers from the NBAC's satellite site in Harford County to score at a senior national meet.

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