A day of ups and downs for Phelps

Michael Phelps recovered from a stunning failure in his first event of the World Swimming Championships to lead off a dominating United States victory in the 400m freestyle relay on Sunday.

Phelps, Neil Walker, Nate Dusing and Jason Lezak set a meet record with a time of three minutes and 13,77 seconds, beating runners-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 individual 400m freestyle. He entered the event hoping to challenge Australian star Grant Hackett and get started on matching that six-gold, eight-medal haul from the Athens Olympics.

Instead, Phelps didn’t even get past the preliminaries.
He wound 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 50m 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 US 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 400m freestyle relay and France’s Laure Manaudou in the women’s 400m freestyle.

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. 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’s calibre, 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 a second.

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 start-to-finish 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.

“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.

World-record-holders Australia won the women’s 400m free relay in 3:37,32, using a star-studded line-up that included Jodie Henry, Alice Mills, Libby Lenton and Shayne Reese.

Germany took silver and the Americans settled for bronze after five-time Olympic medallist Natalie Coughlin put them out front from the lead-off spot.

“I was getting nervous,” said Lenton, who swam anchor for the Australians. “You have more pressure on you coming home.”

South Africa’s Roland Schoeman set the first world record of the meet in the semifinals of the 50m butterfly with a time of 23,01, beating the record of 23,3 set by American Ian Crocker last year.

Crocker was second-fastest in the semis at 23,32.

The 100m breaststroke is shaping up as another memorable showdown between world-record-holder Brendan Hansen of the US 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 Monday’s final, Kitajima said: “I need to break the world record to win the race.”—Sapa-AP