ORLANDO, Fla. - Michael Phelps wasn't the star at USA Swimming's Spring Nationals last night.
His team was.
The world's hottest Olympic athlete led off a hat trick of titles for the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. In rapid succession, he claimed the 200-meter freestyle and teammates ruled the 400 individual medley, with Katie Hoff taking the women's race and Kevin Clements the men's.
Those were the only individual events contested last night at this city's YMCA and Family Aquatic Center.
Like a tree that's dated by its rings, Phelps has as many national titles, 18, as he does years. The only man ever to win five titles in one national meet, he'll likely repeat that feat when this gathering concludes tomorrow.
Clements and Hoff, conversely, enjoyed their first national titles.
Next week, their more celebrated teammate could be on the cover of ESPN The Magazine, and Phelps figures to take a lead role in NBC's Olympic coverage come August. His celebrity was one of the factors that pulled Clements and Hoff to the Baltimore area last year.
The two are separated by age - Clements is 24, Hoff 14 - but have a common goal, getting to the 2004 Olympics, which open six months from today in Athens, Greece.
"I'm very excited about where I am right now," said Hoff, a home-schooler whose family relocated from Virginia to Abingdon late last summer so that she could train with the NBAC's satellite team in Harford County, which is run by Paul Yetter. "I was already confident. This just makes me happy.
"Seeing Michael win, and knowing that Kevin had a good chance, I just wanted to be a part of that."
Hoff never trailed and shaved three seconds off her personal best as she won in 4 minutes, 42.32 seconds. She'll have to pass veterans like Maggie Bowen and Kaitlin Sandeno to earn an Olympic berth come July, but last night she was content to hold off Floridian Sara McLarty, who beat her in a U.S. Open meet two months ago in Seattle.
Hoff became the 11th-fastest American ever. Already the national age group record-holder in the 200 IM, last night she bettered a 13-14 mark in the 400 IM that was two decades old. It was the 169th national age-group record in the history of the NBAC, the leader in that category.
Clements' age-group days are long gone. He had a solid career at Auburn University and is the second-fastest American ever behind Phelps in the 200 IM, but he has experienced too many close calls. He was third in the 200 IM and fourth in the 400 IM at the 2000 Olympic trials, and he had never stood atop an awards podium at an NCAA or national meet.
"Not too many people wait until they're 24 to get their first national title," said Clements, who lived with Phelps when he moved to Baltimore last spring. "That was pretty exciting, but to be honest with you, I didn't think I would get my first one by going 4:18."
Clements won in 4:18.19, less than a second off his career best. Erik Vendt, who broke 4:12 when he chased Phelps to a world record at the Summer Nationals two years ago, was second in 4:20.35 this time.
Friday the 13th could provide something scary in the 100 butterfly from Phelps, who was unhappy with his performance last night. Never challenged in the 200 freestyle, he went out faster than he did when he set the American record of 1:45.99 last August, but he couldn't maintain that pace.
Phelps came home in 1:46.47, his second-best time ever and more than two seconds faster than runner-up Chad Carvin. No other American has ever gone faster, but Phelps wanted more - to at least move from No. 4 to No. 3 on the event's all-time list.
"I'm not too pleased with the way I swam tonight," Phelps said. "If I want to swim at the speed I want, I have to feel the stroke better. I have to go back to Baltimore and work on a few things."
Inspiring his teammates is not among them.
At a glance
What: USA Swimming's Spring Nationals
Site: Orlando, Fla.
When: Through tomorrow
Michael Phelps' events: 100-meter freestyle (won in 49.05 seconds), 200 freestyle (won in 1:46.47), 200 backstroke (won in 1:55.30), 100 butterfly (today), 200 individual medley (tomorrow)
Log on to http://www.baltimoresun.com/sports/ to ask Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps a question. He will respond to readers next week.