In Australia this year at the FINA World Championships, swimmer Michael Phelps proved that, when it comes to his best events, he's racing against only himself and history.
When he steps away from his strengths, however, there are still swimmers out there who can not only push him, but also defeat him. And Phelps, one of the world's most competitive athletes, does not like to lose. At anything.
It can make for riveting racing. Which is one reason the USA Swimming National Championships, an event that begins today in Indianapolis and runs through Saturday, is worth following. Phelps won't swim in his two strongest events - the 200-meter butterfly and the 400 individual medley - but he will try the 200 breaststroke today and both backstroke events later in the week.
He won't be favored going up against world-record holders Brendan Hansen (breaststroke) and Ryan Lochte (backstroke), but as Phelps has proved in the past, it's never wise to bet against him. U.S. Nationals represent the last major meet for Phelps before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and it's clear that his mental preparation is shifting into gear.
"It's now or never," Phelps told reporters yesterday. "We're just about at the time when you have to start really getting down to it, and you really have to get focused."
Phelps, who won seven gold medals at the FINA World Championships in Melbourne in March, knows that his legacy as a swimmer will likely be determined by what he does during the next 13 months. And even though he's not expected to swim either the backstroke or the breaststroke in Beijing, it's worth doing it now just to tinker and keep his competitive juices flowing. He'll also face Ian Crocker in the 100-meter butterfly, potentially adding a chapter to the best rivalry in swimming.
"This is my last big year to do something big in the sport - to try an event program like a World Championships or Olympic [program]," Phelps said. "I'd rather be able to say, 'I gave it everything I could,' than be five years down the road saying, 'I wish I'd have changed this or changed that.' "
Even though Phelps might have a chance to finish his career as the most decorated Olympian ever, he believes he hasn't hit his stride yet.
"I try not to get caught up in what I have done, because there's more to come in the future," Phelps said. "Swimmers hit their peak at the early 20s, so hopefully I'm almost there."
Baltimore swimmer Katie Hoff, who won three gold medals at the FINA World Championships and set her first individual world record, has also decided not to enter her strongest event, the 400 individual medley. She will swim the 200 IM, and go head-to-head with Fairfax, Va., native Kate Ziegler in three events: the 200, 400 and 800 meter freestyles.
Last month, Ziegler broke one of the oldest world records in swimming, smashing Janet Evans' mark in the 1,500-meter freestyle by 9.44 seconds.
What: The ConocoPhillips USA Swimming National Championships
When: Today through Saturday
On the net: A live Webcast of the event can be seen starting each day at 6 p.m. on usaswimming.org. Results can be found at usaswimming.org, as well as Omegatiming.com.
Today: Michael Phelps will challenge Brendan Hansen in the 200-meter breaststroke.
Tomorrow: Phelps takes on Ryan Lochte in the 200-meter backstroke.
Thursday: Katie Hoff and Kate Ziegler go head-to-head in the 400 meter freestyle; Phelps and Ian Crocker renew their rivalry in the 100-meter butterfly.
Friday: Hoff and Ziegler swim the 200 free; Phelps shoots for an upset win in the 100 backstroke.
Saturday: Hoff shoots for a world record in the 200 IM; Phelps and Lochte face off in the 200 IM.