INDIANAPOLIS -- The third day of the ConocoPhillips USA Swimming National Championships was marked by a pair of exciting rivalry races -- one marred by a bad start, and the other capped by an exciting finish.
Just a half-hour after his third-place finish in the 400-meter freestyle yesterday, Michael Phelps took to the starting blocks for the 100-meter butterfly and another showdown with world record holder Ian Crocker. As the racers awaited the start, Crocker flinched slightly at what appeared to be a camera flash, drawing a collective moan from the crowd.
Swimmers are signaled to begin racing by a simultaneous flash and horn. Crocker reacted to the wrong flash, though, and was disqualified after the race.
In the water, it was a dead heat between Phelps and Crocker, but as in the swimmers' duel at the world championships in March, Phelps caught Crocker late and held a slight advantage in the final few meters. Phelps' winning time was a meet record -- 51.39 seconds. Crocker finished in 51.60, but the time was discarded.
"That's usually something that's monitored very closely, especially at larger meets," Crocker said of the errant flash. "It's unfortunate, but it is what it is. At least it's not one of the major meets."
The finish was Phelps' third gold at these championships. He competes again today in the 100-meter backstroke and 200-meter freestyle, the event in which he set a world record four months ago, and tomorrow in the 200-meter individual medley as well as in a relay.
Phelps, from Rodgers Forge, said he didn't know about the flash until he saw the start again on video replay. "I didn't see it. My eyes are always down. ... I don't go by the flash. I go by the sound," Phelps said.
For Crocker, the race marked the second disqualification in recent months. At the world championships, in the 400 medley relay, Crocker leaned early off the blocks and the team was disqualified, potentially costing Phelps an eighth gold medal in Australia.
Another rivalry is shaping up on the women's side, where Katie Hoff, of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, again squared off in the 400-meter freestyle against Kate Ziegler, trying to avenge a narrow loss two nights earlier in the 800-meter free.
And just as on Tuesday, the match unfolded with Ziegler jumping out early and Hoff grabbing a narrow lead in the middle, and after going stroke-for-stroke over 50 meters, Ziegler powered through the final leg to pull out a close win. Her winning time of 4:04.24 was a meet record and just a hair better than Hoff's 4:04.60.
"I love Katie," Ziegler said. "We're really good friends. In the pool, we're definitely competitors, and we want to beat each other, to push each other to our best."
Hoff's coach, Paul Yetter, said the two racers are able to feed off each other, and views the rivalry as a healthy one.
"The competitiveness that Katie and Kate bring to our meets pushes both of them -- in the meets, but also in their training," Yetter said. "The way we like to look at what a lot of people consider to be a rivalry is more like teamwork. These two girls are going to competing for the same team ideally at international meets."
Last night, Phelps won the 100 butterfly despite having raced just a half-hour earlier. In the 400 freestyle, many were looking for him to challenge Ian Thorpe's world record of 3:40.08, but the pace in the pool was a slow one. Phelps' Club Wolverine teammate Peter Vanderkaay won with a time of 3:45.55, nearly two seconds better than Phelps' third-place 3:47.13.
"We tried something different in the 400. Normally I pretty much go out like a bat out of hell and take off that first 200," Phelps said. "But [coach Bob Bowman] told me to sort of relax a little bit and 'swim it like you're supposed to swim a 400.'"
Phelps was scheduled to compete in the 800-meter freestyle relay, but earlier in the day Bowman decided to pull Phelps from the race to give him a rest. Even without the relay, Phelps is scheduled for nine events over five days, so he didn't mind the breather.
"I joked around with Bob after prelims," said Phelps. "He said, 'I got something for you.' I go, 'I'm not in the relay!' He said, 'Way to ruin the surprise.'"
Also last night, North Baltimore Aquatic's Felicia Lee, 15, finished second in the B final of the 100-meter butterfly, at 59.72.