By Kevin Van Valkenburg
July 6, 2008
Michael Phelps, in his final race of the week, was supposed to duel Ian Crocker, the world-record holder in the 100-meter butterfly. Crocker represents perhaps Phelps' biggest roadblock in his quest to win eight gold medals in Beijing.
Katie Hoff, in her final race of the week, was supposed to duel Kate Ziegler, the 2007 world champion in the 800 freestyle. Ziegler owns the second-fastest time in the history of the event and is the world-record holder in the 1,500 freestyle.
Both races were supposed to be closer than close.
Phelps and Hoff turned them both into blowouts.
First up, Phelps streaked by Crocker on the second half of the 100 butterfly, grabbing another win in a rivalry that has been one of the sport's best over the past four years.
The 100 fly is the one event that Phelps excels in in which he does not own the world record - Crocker has had it since 2005 - but last night Phelps didn't even have to post one of his best marks to pick up the victory. He touched the wall in 50.98 seconds, well ahead of Crocker's 51.62.
"I knew about two or three strokes out that I wasn't going to have the finish that I wanted," Phelps said. "There are a few little things I can work on between now and the Olympics."
Next up was Hoff, who actually came into her race cast as an even bigger underdog. Ziegler had a better semifinal time, more experience in the 800 and a faster personal best.
The two were right next to each other through the first 400 meters. Hoff had, at best, only a slight lead. But on the back half, Hoff turned it into a rout. She touched the wall in 8 minutes, 20.81 seconds, and Ziegler needed eight more strokes before she finished second (8:25.38).
"I was definitely planning on it being a tough race against her," Hoff said. "The first half really pushed me."
Neither Crocker nor Ziegler felt, physically, that they were at their best last night. Both said they were just happy to make the team and get a chance at a rematch in Beijing.
"It's an overriding sense of relief," Crocker said. "All week, I felt like all the young wolves were coming out to eat the old wolves. I'm just really thankful to be on the team."
With two more dominant performances on their final night of competition in the past week, despite tired legs and weary minds, what can be said without hesitation is that Phelps and Hoff have owned these trials.
Both won five individual events. Phelps set two world records (200 individual medley and 400 IM), and Hoff got one of her own (400 IM).
In Phelps' case, he'll be favored to win gold in each of his five races next month in China. Although the United States hasn't yet named its relay teams, he'll almost certainly be named to all three. He has looked calm and in control this week, by his own admission tougher mentally and stronger physically than he was four years ago at the U.S. trials in Long Beach, Calif.
"On the whole," Phelps said, "it was a pretty decent week. But I know it's going to be harder at the Olympics than it was here."
Hoff will also have a chance to win gold in all her events, but she won't be the favorite that Phelps is. She'll have strong swimmers from Australia and France as well as the U.S. gunning for her.
"I'm not one of those swimmers who doesn't want to see other swimmers' results," Hoff said. "I'm on all those swimming Web sites, checking out how my competitors are doing. I know they'll be at their best in Beijing, and I want to be at my best."
Hoff will also be a member of at least one relay team, the 800-meter freestyle relay, which should be favored to win gold. Could she, a reporter asked, foresee herself having a Phelps-like performance in China?
"I can't really predict anything as big as that," Hoff said. "Going to this meet, I couldn't tell you I was going to break a world record or win this or that event. I'm just going to try and do just as well as I did here, or better, in Beijing. That's my goal."
It's almost hard to believe that the world's best male swimmer and the world's best female swimmer grew up fine-tuning their strokes in the same 50-meter pool at the Meadowbrook Athletic Club. But little more than a month from now, they'll likely be the two biggest stars of the Olympics.
"Just people from Baltimore," Phelps said when asked how to explain his and Hoff's accomplishments. "Must be something in the water."
In other action, Margaret Hoelzer set the ninth world record of the trials, winning the women's 200-meter backstroke in 2:06.09.
Dara Torres set an American record in the 50-meter freestyle, winning her semifinal heat in 24.38 seconds. At 41, she will be the oldest American ever to swim at the Olympics.
On the men's side, Garrett Weber-Gale completed a sprint double, winning the 50-meter freestyle with an American record, while Gary Hall Jr. failed to claim a spot on the team heading to Beijing.
Weber-Gale, who won the 100 free, touched first in the furious one-lap sprint with a time of 21.47 seconds, beating the mark of 21.59 that Cullen Jones set the previous day in the preliminaries. Hall was fourth in 21.91, ending his quest to make the U.S. team and win his third straight gold in the 50 free.
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