One of the summer's most important competitions, the USA Swimming National Championships, arrives next week in Irvine, Calif., but already America's top athletes in the sport are beginning to plot courses for the 2008 Olympic Games half a world away.
At the halfway point before the next Olympics in Beijing, China, Michael Phelps, the Rodgers Forge native who was the phenom of the 2004 Games in Athens, Greece, is rededicated and thrilled about entering six events in the nationals, which serve as the selection meet for the country's next five international teams.
"You want to do well here [in the nationals] because this is probably as big as the Olympic trials," said Phelps, now living in Michigan and training under longtime coach Bob Bowman. "If you don't, then you're out of international competition pretty much for the next two years. I'm sure you're going to see some fast times in this meet."
One of only two men in Olympic history to win eight medals in one Olympics (including six golds), Phelps was one of three world-class swimmers who participated in a conference call yesterday to preview the nationals. The others were Towson's Katie Hoff and Aaron Peirsol, the world-record holder in the 100- and 200-meter backstrokes who will be swimming in his hometown pool.
Many of the questions centered on the planned morning finals in swimming for the 2008 Games (to allow them to be shown live in prime time on U.S. television).
"I'm glad they let us know this far ahead," Peirsol said. "It would have been a shock to get there and find out. It's going to be different, a trip. You have to prepare for that mentally and drink a lot of coffee when you wake up."
Phelps, who said he wants to have an event program for Beijing in place by the end of this summer, said: "It lets the American public see us firsthand, at the highest level of the game. I think it's a good thing for the sport. If you can't get up for an Olympic final at 10 in the morning, you'll never be able to get up for an Olympic final."
Said Hoff: "Everybody's going to be in the same boat."
All three swimmers professed that they are preparing very well for the nationals, which take place Aug. 1-5.
"I'm training the best I've ever trained," said Hoff, the youngest member of the entire U.S. delegation in Athens and still only 17. "I'm just going to continue to try to drop my times."
Phelps, who was not satisfied with his performances in 2005 competition, said: "I think this year is going to very different than last. It's the best I've ever trained over the last six to eight months. I've been able to get back into rhythm, settle down, stay in one place. And we've added a few new people to our training group, which has made a big difference.
"Hopefully, I can go into nationals and make a serious statement."
Peirsol, a two-time Olympian, sounded one note of caution. "You have to remember you're not infallible," he said. "Those 16- and 17-year-old kids coming up will be trying to do our job. You have to keep pushing them down."