INDIANAPOLIS -- Baltimore's best swimmers traveled to the Midwest and spurred high hopes for what they might accomplish a year from now in the Far East.
Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff were named the top individual performers at the ConocoPhillips USA Swimming Nationals last night. Phelps leaves here with six new gold medals, including one from last night's 400-meter medley relay, won in 3 minute, 38.32 seconds, and Hoff won three national titles, capped by an impressive win in the 200-meter individual medley last night.
The national championships are considered to be the final major meet before the Olympic trials next June, which means the past five days could serve as the best gauge by which to judge Phelps and Hoff. Both swimmers chose varied event programs for the nationals, skipping traditionally strong events. But their respective performances in these so-called "off" events have only sparked speculation as to just how much success they might attain at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
"There are a lot of things that I learned, a lot of things I had fun with this week," Phelps said last night. "It really does open up a lot more possibilities; it opens up a lot more thinking for me for the future."
For Hoff, because of her age, her versatility, her development and her hometown, there's only one comparison that can be made - to Phelps, four years ago.
Like Phelps, Hoff, 18, has wet her feet in an Olympics and has improved exponentially as she prepares for what looks to be a breakout Summer Games. Her performance at the world championships in March and last week in Indianapolis seem to bode well for what might lie down the road.
"I don't really like to compare myself to anybody, but obviously if people think I'm following that road, that's a good thing," Hoff said.
In addition to her three golds in Indianapolis, Hoff also had two second-place finishes at the nationals - perhaps none as impressive as last night's.
Hoff is the two-time world champ in the 200 individual medley, so most expected something exciting in the pool last night. Hoff didn't disappoint, barely topping the world-record pace at the halfway point. She fell slightly behind over the final 100 meters but finished a full body length ahead of anyone else.
Hoff's time - 2:10.62 -- was the sixth-best in history and means that the Towson swimmer owns four of the six fastest times in the 200 IM. (The world record in the event is 2:09.72, set by Wu Yanyan in 1997. That mark, though, is considered by many to be tainted. Wu tested positive for steroids and was suspended for four years by the Chinese team.)
"I think this week was probably my second-best week," Hoff said.
Phelps' week was filled with near-misses. He flirted three times with a world record, including one last night in the 400 medley relay. Swimming the first leg, Phelps' 100-meter backstroke time was 53.17 - the third-best all-time. Just one night earlier, Phelps posted the second-best 100-meter backstroke ever, 53.01, which was just 0.03 of a second shy of the record that Aaron Peirsol set in March.
Earlier last week, Phelps had missed the 200-meter backstroke record by just 0.33 of a second. What makes the times so remarkable is that Phelps posted them in events that aren't regularly part of his program. Both Phelps and Hoff used the week as training as much as anything else. Phelps skipped out on four of the seven events he won at the world championships in March, and Hoff bypassed two of the events in which she won a world title.
For five days in Indianapolis, though, no one detected any sense of unfamiliarity.
"The training really hasn't been where it should be. For having that and being able to swim some of the times I have really gets me even more excited," Phelps said. "If I'm doing best times and I'm this close to records, you never really know what could happen with a good year of training."
Neither swimmer will narrow down an Olympic trials program for several months, but their respective performances last week show both - and the rest of the world - that they have plenty of options.
Hoff leaves here and will spend a week in the Bahamas before resuming her training, and Phelps heads to China tomorrow on a business trip. He'll compete in one race at the Japan International Grand Prix from Aug. 21-24 in Chiba.
Both can hear the Olympic clock ticking - 368 days until the opening ceremony - and their performances over the past several days have only raised hopes and sparked further intrigue for next summer.
Baltimore's best at the nationals:
Event Place Time 100 butterfly First 51.39 100 backstroke First 53.01 200 freestyle First 1:44.98 200 breaststroke 11th 2:15.06 200 backstroke First 1:54.65 400 freestyle Third 3:47.13 400 freestyle relay First 3:17.96 400 medley relay First 3:38.32
Event Place Time 200 IM First 2:10.62 200 backstroke First 2:10.31 200 freestyle First 1:57.57 400 freestyle Second 4:04.60 400 freestyle relay 17th 3:51.14 800 freestyle Second 8:22.80