INDIANAPOLIS—- When you think about it, Michael Phelps isn't just the greatest swimmer in the world because he's incredibly fast. It's also because, no matter what's going on in his life, no matter what transition he's undertaking or controversy he's facing, he's never slow.
There are times when he's faster than others, certainly. But one part of his athletic genius that is so easy to overlook is his consistency. He's occasionally amazing, often good, and never awful. Mentally, he might be furious or frustrated about something, but he's always been able to put it aside long enough that it doesn't matter. And that sort of sums up his performance Wednesday night at the U.S. nationals.
An hour later, he turned around and won the 200-meter butterfly in 1 minute, 52.76 seconds, also the fastest time in the world this year. But before he climbed out of the pool, he shook his head in minor frustration, and was clearly angry as he entered the warm-up pool. Never mind that he's done almost no training for the 200 butterfly this year.
"I'm not happy unless I'm swimming my best times," Phelps said. "This is the first time I've been shaved and tapered where I didn't hit my best times, and that's not something I'm used to."
Clearly though, Phelps wasn't happy about something else, too. But he wasn't willing to say what it was.
"There are some things that I'm fired up about that I'm keeping inside," Phelps said. "I'm not going to talk about those things because I'm just going to use them as motivation."
Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, said he was pleased with both races, and suspected that Phelps was too when he looked at them with a bit of perspective. He's really only been back in the water for five months.
"He's just getting back into racing and realizing there are some things he can control and things he can't," Bowman said. "We can only do as well as we can do with the training we put in. If you had asked me awhile ago if he'd go 1:52 and 1:44, I'd have been surprised. So I'm very pleased. I think he's ahead of where we initially thought he might be."
Phelps' standards are sort of hard to put in perspective with the rest of the world. While his meet has been businesslike and reserved thus far, solid if not spectacular, Elizabeth Pelton's U.S. nationals experience has felt nothing short of magical for the 15-year-old from Baltimore.
After surprising nearly everyone Tuesday by grabbing a spot on the national team in the 200-meter individual medley, Pelton followed it up Wednesday night by making the team again in the 100-meter backstroke, finishing second to Haley MacGregory.
Pelton said after her race that she had a hard time falling asleep Tuesday knowing she was going to the world championships in Rome later this month, fulfilling a dream she'd worked so hard for, and that excitement hadn't faded at all when she went and made the team in a second event.
"It's a little overwhelming," said Pelton, who prior to this meet set 10 national age group records. "I kept trying to take my mind off it, and I always found myself just going back to it. Just constantly. Tonight I looked over and I saw my team jumping up and down again and I knew something good had happened. It still hasn't hit me. I had like 35 text messages last night."
Pelton and her family moved to Baltimore from Connecticut and joined the North Baltimore Aquatic Club in 2006, specifically because of the success that coach Paul Yetter had training Katie Hoff, who made her first Olympic team when she was 15, the age Pelton is now.
"I saw how good Katie was in the [individual medleys], and I knew that Paul was really good," Pelton said. "We decided to give it a shot."
That time may seem like another lifetime ago for Hoff, who is currently heading in the opposite direction of Pelton. The 20-year-old Hoff tried to summon every ounce of energy in a last-ditch effort to salvage a disappointing meet, but she still finished eighth in the finals of the 200-meter freestyle, likely ending her chances of making the world championship team.
"I gave it a shot, and I just don't have it this meet," Hoff said. "I just ran into [USA head coach] Mark Schubert, and he said to me 'You know, even the best swimmers, even Janet Evans, had a year or two when she wasn't on. This has been a huge, huge transition year for me. Everything I've done has been completely different, so I'll just go back to the drawing board and find what works for me again."
Aaron Peirsol clearly found something that works for him. The 25-year-old from Irvine, Calif., became the first man to break the 52-second barrier in the 100-meter backstroke, reclaiming the world record he lost recently with a time of 51.94 seconds. Aschwin Wildeboer of Spain held the record for just under two weeks.
"He'll get his chance again in a couple of weeks," Peirsol said. "Any time you break one of those barriers, it feels cool. ... That was just a great swim. A lot of times you look back and feel like you could have done something differently, even with a good time, but that was just a great swim. It feels good to know what I'm capable of."
Notes: NBAC swimmer Felicia Lee, 17, won the C Final of the women's 100-meter backstroke with a time of 1:02.58.