United States' Aaron Peirsol starts in men's 100 meter backstroke at the World Aquatics Championships Tuesday, July 26, 2005 in Montreal. Peirsol won the gold medal in the event.
AP Photo/CP, Frank Gunn
MONTREAL Michael Phelps was slowly treading at one end of the pool, an arm draped across the lane rope as he stared at his name on the scoreboard.
Yep, it was the one on top.
Now that's more like it.
Phelps shook off the bitter disappointment of his first event at the World Swimming Championships with an emphatic victory in the 200-meter freestyle Tuesday night, holding off Australian star Grant Hackett.
''Hopefully,'' Phelps said, ''this race will help me continue on throughout the meet.''
The 20-year-old American got off to a dismal start in Montreal, shockingly failing to qualify for the 400 free final. But he shared gold as part of a winning U.S. relay team, and now he's got his first individual title of the championships.
Phelps is still on pace to match the seven medals he won at the 2003 worlds his breakout performance but he'll come up at least one short of his eight-medal haul at the Athens Olympics.
That's OK. His focus is squarely on 2008.
''It's all pretty much a learning process,'' Phelps said. ''Hopefully, everything that happens now will help me leading up to Beijing.''
Phelps hung on when South Africa's Ryk Neethling went out strong, seized the lead at the midway point under world-record pace and had enough left to get to the wall ahead of Hackett.
Phelps' time of 1:45.20 fell short of Ian Thorpe's 2001 record (1:44.06) but broke his American mark, set during a bronze-medal swim at the Olympics last summer.
The two guys who beat him in Athens, Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband, skipped the worlds their absence duly noted by Phelps.
''I'm sure, if they're like me, they're watching all the races and all the results,'' he said. ''They are great competitors and hopefully I'll have my chance to race them at tiptop shape.''
The Americans won three of five events on the third day of swimming, giving them six golds and 12 medals overall at the pool. Australia is second in the medal table: four golds and eight medals.
Another U.S. teenager emerged as a star when 17-year-old Kate Ziegler swam to victory in the 1,500 free. But the stalwart of the women's team, five-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin, was upset by Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry in the 100 backstroke.
Australia's Leisel Jones finally earned a long-denied victory in the 100 breaststroke. She beat 18-year-old American Jessica Hardy, who broke Jones' world record in the semifinals but settled for silver in the final.
The third U.S. victory of the night was totally expected.
World record holder and Olympic champion Aaron Peirsol continued his backstroke dominance with a victory in the 100. Randall Bal made it a 1-2 American finish by taking silver, the bronze going to Hungary's Laszio Cseh.
''I just keep pounding away at that thing,'' Peirsol said.
Hackett, who'll be favored to win two more golds in the 800 and 1,500 free, added the 200 to his schedule thinking it would give him two shots at Phelps. It turned out to be their only head-to-head meeting of the championships.
''I knew he was going to finish strong,'' Phelps said. ''I saw him at the 100 and I was hoping I had enough in the tank to hold him off.''
When it was over, Phelps had enough strength to lift his left arm to his teammates, cheering him on from the stands. Hackett paddled over from two lanes away, the two exchanging a hug and a few laughs before crawling out of the pool.
''It would have been nicer to be a bit closer to Michael and challenge him at the end,'' said Hackett, who was nearly a second behind.
The bronze went to Neethling.
Ziegler followed the promising performances of Hardy and 16-year-old Katie Hoff by shaving nearly 11 seconds off her previous best in the 1,500.
''It's just another swim,'' Ziegler told herself.
Hardly. She won the longest event in the pool in 16:00.41 seconds the third-fastest performance in history. Switzerland's Flavia Rigamonti got the silver, Canada's Brittany Reimer the bronze.
The U.S. women came to Montreal looking to fill the void left by the absence of longtime stalwarts such as Jenny Thompson, who retired, and Amanda Beard, who's taking the year off.
The next generation appears to be in good hands. Hoff won her first world championship in the 200 individual medley Monday, though she failed to qualify for the final of the 200 free one night later.
''I just wanted to keep the U.S. spirit alive,'' Ziegler said.
Coughlin seemed to be one of the few sure things for the American women a five-time Olympic medalist, team captain and grizzled veteran at 22.
She got off to a great start in the 100 back, making the turn more than a half-second ahead of anyone else. But the Olympic champion and only woman ever to break the 1-minute barrier in the event couldn't hold off Coventry or Germany's Antje Buschschulte.
Coventry used a strong finishing kick to win in 1:00.24, while the German took the silver in 1:00.84 outstretching Coughlin by four-hundredths of a second.
''You can't win all the time,'' Coughlin said. ''There's been really unexpected outcomes in a lot of events, and this was another one.''
Coventry, adding to a silver medal in the 200 IM, reveled in the role of underdog. She said Coughlin ''tends to put a lot of pressure on (herself). People expect a lot.''
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