- The Washington Times - Monday, July 25, 2005

MONTREAL — Michael Phelps was a flop in the morning, an exhausted, beaten swimmer.

By evening, he was a winner again — with help from his American teammates.

Phelps recovered from a stunning collapse in his first event of the World Swimming Championships — he didn’t even advance past the preliminaries — to lead off a dominating U.S. victory in the 400-meter freestyle relay last night.

Phelps, Neil Walker, Nate Dusing and Jason Lezak set a meet record with a time of 3 minutes, 13.77 seconds, beating runner-up Canada by nearly three seconds. Australia took the bronze.

The relay victory put Phelps in a much better frame of mind after his performance in the 400 free. He entered the event hoping to challenge Australian star Grant Hackett and get started on matching his six-gold, eight-medal haul from the Athens Olympics.

Instead, Phelps didn’t even get past the prelims.

He faded badly after his last flip to wind up next-to-last in his heat and 18th overall. Hackett went on to an easy victory in the final, snapping a streak of runner-up finishes that included the last two world championships and the 2004 Athens Olympics.

“I’m happier tonight than I was this morning,” Phelps said. “I’m pleased with my race. It’s definitely a step up from this morning, and we have more races ahead.”

In the relay, Phelps got off to one of his typically slow starts, touching fifth at the 50-meter mark. But he had the Americans out front by the time he passed off the pool to Walker.

From there, it was easy. The only question was whether the U.S. team would break the world record, but they came up just short of South Africa’s mark (3:13.17) from the Athens Games.

The Americans did break the meet record set by the Russians (3:14.06) at Barcelona two years ago and won their first world championship in the event since 1998.

“Our next big goal is to break the world record,” Phelps said. “It’s great for us to get this race back.”

Other winners on the first night of swimming: Australia in the women’s 400 free relay and France’s Laure Manaudou in the women’s 400 free.

Manaudou, the defending Olympic champion, nearly pulled a Phelps, claiming the last spot in the final with the eighth-fastest time in the prelims. She then swam nearly five seconds better in the evening to take the gold.

Manaudou built a big lead and held off Japan’s hard-charging Ai Shibata in 4:06.44. Great Britain’s Caitlin McClatchey was third.

“Well, I definitely feel better than this morning,” Manaudou said, sounding just like Phelps. “My coach said things to motivate me. He told me I was the best and that no one could beat me.”

The morning swim is supposed to be a formality for someone of Phelps’ caliber, but he wasn’t even close to advancing on a warm, sunny day at Parc Jean-Drapeau. He trailed the last of the eight qualifiers by more than 1 seconds.

With Phelps out of the way and countryman Ian Thorpe skipping the meet, Hackett coasted to the first swimming gold of the championships with a wire-to-wire victory.

His relief was apparent when he popped from the water, spotted his winning time of 3:42.91 and thrust his right fist in the air. Hackett finished second to Thorpe at the last two championships and in Athens.

Russia’s Yuri Prilukov took second, followed by Tunisia’s Oussama Mellouli. The lone American, Peter Vanderkaay, was sixth.

“Obviously, it’s a shame Michael wasn’t here today,” Hackett said.

Not that he felt too bad about it.

“He was in the race,” the Aussie said. “He just didn’t make the finals.”

Now, the most medals Phelps can win in Montreal is seven, which would still match his breakthrough performance at the 2003 world championships in Barcelona.

Phelps is expected to swim eight events — the same number as Athens — but not the same program. He dropped two of his world-record events, the 200 butterfly and 400 individual medley, and added the 100 and 400 free.

World-record holder Australia won the women’s 400 free relay in 3:37.32, using a star-studded lineup that included Jodie Mills, Alice Mills, Libby Lenton and Shayne Reese.

South Africa’s Roland Schoeman set the first world record of the meet in the semifinals of the 50 butterfly with a time of 23.01, beating the record of 23.30 set by American Ian Crocker last year.

Crocker was second-fastest in the semis at 23.32.

The 100 breaststroke is shaping up as another memorable showdown between world-record holder Brendan Hansen of the United States and Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima, who beat Hansen for the gold medal in Athens.

Kitajima set a meet record in the prelims, but Hansen was fastest in the evening semifinals.

Looking ahead to tonight’s final, Kitajima said, “I need to break the world record to win the race.”


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