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Relaxed Phelps eases into freestyle showdown

The Baltimore Sun

MELBOURNE, Australia -- For a man with so much on his mind, Michael Phelps has had a relaxed air about him the first two days of the FINA World Championships.

He's gushed about his English bulldog puppy, Herman. He's poked fun at his disappointing first-day performance two years ago at the world championships in Montreal. He's admitted that he was bored the first day without a morning swim. He's even shrugged off talk from the South African swim team that American swimmers were overrated.

"I've always been someone who tries to let the swimming do the talking," Phelps said before the competition.

But make no mistake, Phelps has been all business the second he hits the water. And he's not here to mess around.

"In every event, I'd like to be the best in the world, and I'd like to go down as one of the best ever," said Phelps, adding that he wants to do for swimming what Michael Jordan did for basketball.

Early this morning, Phelps swam a relaxed, but strong 200-meter freestyle heat, posting the second-fastest time, behind Pieter Van Den Hoogenband of the Netherlands.

The matchup between Phelps and Van Den Hoogenband, which will take place tomorrow night (morning in Baltimore), is one of the most anticipated races of the world championships. The two haven't been in a pool together since 2005, and with Australian Ian Thorpe now retired, Van Den Hoogenband is probably the closest thing Phelps has to a rival. In Athens, Thorpe, the world-record holder in the 200 freestyle, beat Van Den Hoogenband and Phelps in one of the most watched races in swimming history. It was the only time the three swimmers faced off in the same pool.

"Of course, I'm really looking forward to it," Van den Hoogenband told reporters this week, when asked about facing Phelps. "Unfortunately, Ian [Thorpe] is not swimming anymore. But Michael is the world champion at the moment in the 200 free."

Van Den Hoogenband didn't race at the world championships in Montreal two years ago because of a back injury, and has never won a world title, despite winning Olympic gold in the 100 and 200 freestyle events in Sydney in 2000, and gold in the 100 freestyle in Athens. Phelps now has 11 world titles, tied with Thorpe for the most all time, after swimming the opening leg on the United States gold medal 400 relay team last night.

"After I'm done, I think it will [mean something]," Phelps said of his 11 world titles. "But right now, I have so many things going on in my mind and so many things up and coming."

One of those things in his mind is Van Den Hoogenband, who should enter the 200 freestyle as a slight favorite. If Phelps is going to match his goal of winning eight gold medals this week, this may be his biggest test.

"I think Michael is capable of swimming the 200 in under 1:45," Van Den Hoogenband told the Associated Press. "So far, only two people on the planet have done that, and I am one of them. But [Phelps] is the man to beat. He's in good shape. He could break the record in the 200 free."

Towson teenager Katie Hoff has a great chance to win her first gold medal early this morning when she races in the 200-meter individual medley. Hoff finished a surprising fourth in the 400 freestyle yesterday.

"I love this pool," Hoff said. "I think it's the best pool I've ever swam in. It's really deep, and it has an extra lane [which cuts down turbulence], and the crowd here is great. ... I think it really inspires fast swimming."

Online Exclusive

The Sun's Kevin Van Valkenburg reports on Michael Phelps and the swimming world championships in Melbourne. baltimoresun.com/phelps

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