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Phelps back on top

Michael Phelps left failure in his wake on Tuesday, winning his first individual gold medal of the 11th World Swimming Championships in the 200m freestyle.

Phelps, the six-time Olympic champion whose roller-coaster opening day at the meet included failing to qualify in the 400m freestyle and winning a 4x100m freestyle relay gold, won in a personal-best time of one minute and 45,2 seconds.

The 20-year-old claimed the fifth world title of his career, taking the lead by the halfway point of the race and winning a comfortable 94-hundredths of a second ahead of Australian Grant Hackett.

Hackett, the world’s dominant distance freestyler who is stretching his range in the 200m, took the silver in 1:46,14.

In the process, the 25-year-old became the most decorated swimmer in world championships history with a total of 14 medals, a tally that includes his 400m free triumph on Sunday.

He remains the overwhelming favourite for both the 800m and 1 500m freestyle later this week.

South African Ryk Neethling was third in 1:46,63.

But all eyes were on Phelps to see how the superstar of the Athens Olympics would rebound from his rare 400m freestyle flop.

”I’ve never really been in that condition, to tell you the truth,” Phelps said. ”I don’t even remember a time when I didn’t make the final. It was a big learning experience for me.

”I’ve just been fortunate enough to have the team that I have to support me.”

Phelps said he hopes the victory, in an event in which he won bronze in Athens behind Montreal absentees Ian Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband, has put him back on track for good with the 100m butterfly, 200m individual medley, two likely relay swims and another unfamiliar freestyle event — the 100m — still awaiting him.

”Hopefully this race will help me to continue on through the meet,” he said.

Leisel Jones found redemption of a different sort as the talented Australian ended a run of disappointing performances in major meets with a victory in the 100m breaststroke.

Jones surged past newly minted world-record-holder Jessica Hardy to win in 1:06,25.

Hardy, who had beaten Jones’s world record in the semifinals on Monday, settled for silver in 1:06,62 and fellow American Tara Kirk was third in 1:07,43.

Jones admitted the victory made up for a lot of disappointments after her campaigns at the past two world championships and the Athens Olympics failed to yield gold.

”It certainly has,” she said. ”Good things come to those who wait.”

Hardy, an 18-year-old in her first international meet, said she is happy with her silver despite the expectations raised by her semifinal swim.

”It’s my first world championship final. I couldn’t have asked for a better performance,” she said. ”I’m happy to have gained the experience, and I’ll be back for more.”

Two-time defending champion and Athens Olympic gold medallist Luo Xuejuan of China was fourth in 1:07,60.

Luo said it isn’t the loss of the title that she regrets, but that she did not meet her target of swimming under 1:07. She’ll now set her sights on the 50m breaststroke.

”Anything is possible,” she said of the one-lap sprint.

Another United States newcomer, 17-year-old Kate Ziegler, won the women’s 1 500m freestyle title, establishing an early lead that was never challenged.

She won in 16:00,41, becoming just the third world champion in an event that was added to the women’s programme at the 2001 worlds.

Behind her, Canadian Brittany Reimer and Flavia Rigamonti duelled for second place, Reimer holding off the Swiss by the narrowest of margins until the 1 000m mark, when the 2001 world silver medallist edged ahead.

Rigamonti, who has battled back to fitness after damaging both of her elbows in a 2003 cycling accident, held off the determined Canadian to again take silver in 16:04,34 with Reimer taking the bronze in 16:07,33.

Zimbabwe’s Kirsty Coventry won the women’s 100m backstroke as world-record-holder Natalie Coughlin was relegated to third.

Coventry, swimming in lane one, snatched the gold in 1:00,24 ahead of Germany’s Antje Buschschulte (1:00,84), with Coughlin, winner of Olympic gold in Athens, finishing third in 1:00,88.

Coventry improved on her own 100m backstroke performance at the Athens Olympics, where she was runner-up to Coughlin and earned Olympic gold in the 200m backstroke and bronze in the 200m medley.

She also picked up her second medal of these championships after her second-place finish in the 200m medley.

Coughlin said she is satisfied, given the amount of time she took off after Athens.

”I know you guys are expecting me to be upset,” Coughlin said. ”I’m just working toward 2008 and this is just a step along the way.

The men’s 100m backstroke followed the form book with world-record-holder Aaron Peirsol winning in 53,62 seconds. His fellow American Randall Bal was second in 54,02 and Hungarian Laszlo Cseh took the bronze in 54,27. — Sapa-AFP

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