ANNAPOLIS, Dec. 11—There were some 1,500 people jammed into every corner of LeJeune Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy at just past 6:30 p.m. Friday, most standing, and many pointing cameras or video recorders toward the very center of a pool deck crowded with a bunch of girls no older than 10, and tall guy in a white swim cap, gray sweat jacket and dark head phones.
That guy was Michael Phelps.
More than a year after winning a record eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics and four months after collecting five gold medals at the world championships in Rome, Phelps showed up to the North Baltimore Aquatic Club’s annual three-day holiday meet and attracted what was, by all accounts, the largest crowd in the meet’s 36-year history.
On top of that, he performed well — even by his own lofty standards — in two races in which he blew away the overmatched competition.
After wading through throngs of children to get to the starting blocks, Phelps put up a time in the 200-yard freestyle (1 minute, 33.14 seconds) that was more than six seconds faster than the second-place finisher and which would have won the U.S. short-course national championship last weekend in Federal Way, Wash., and he followed that up fewer than 15 minutes later with a respectable, though not jaw-dropping, time in the 100 butterfly (47.28).
Phelps’s first race, the 200, fell 1.42 seconds short of the American record set last March by Dave Walters. After digesting his result, Phelps, climbed out of the pool in Lane 4, his chest heaving, just as Angela Zhu, 10, of Baltimore’s Retriever Aquatic Club stepped onto the blocks for the girls 10-and-under 50 butterfly final.
“They are going to tell their kids one day, ‘I swam in a meet with Michael Phelps,’” said Phelps’s coach Bob Bowman. “It’s really cool for these guys… He’s just like they were 10 years ago.”
Ten minutes before his race, Phelps grabbed NBAC’s Ian Silverman, 14, who had just competed in the 100 freestyle, and offered a correction of sorts, simulating a freestyle motion to demonstrate. Later, as Phelps warmed down after the race, a group of pre-teen girls seeking autographs followed him around the pool deck.
Phelps said he nearly experienced an even closer encounter with pre-teens as he got ready to race in the practice pool.
“I was warming up, and was the only one in my lane, and I wanted to end my warm-up with some fast” butterfly strokes, Phelps said. “I broke [above the water] and all of a sudden there were five or six little girls smack in the middle of the lane. I thought, ‘If I take a stroke, one of them is going to get smashed in the head.’”
To avoid the collision, Phelps stopped in mid-stroke and swam to another lane.
The meet represented Phelps’s first competition since mid-November, when he struggled mightily in a pair of World Cup events in Stockholm, Sweden, and Berlin, Germany.
In those meets, Phelps wore a short, textile suit against rivals wearing the long, technical suits that will be banned internationally in January.
The competition here took place in the 25-yard pools used for U.S. scholastic but not international meets. In the 200, Phelps’s time fell 1.06 short of his ’06 personal best, but it topped second-place finisher Jameson Hill, 18, of Manassas by 6.49 seconds.
“It’s crazy,” Hill said after. “People work so hard, and you come up and swim next to him, and it’s like just on a whole other level with everything. I definitely raced him. I tried to keep up as long as I could.”
Bowman said Phelps was on American-record pace for the first 150 yards.
“It’s 75 percent of a good 200,” Phelps said. “The difference between that and my best time is the last 50. The difference is, I actually had something the last 50. I had nothing today, but I was better than I was in Europe.”
One of the entrants in the final before Phelps’s signaled wildly to some acquaintances in the stands, trying to get somebody to snap a picture of him standing alongside Phelps. The meet, however, was serious business for Phelps, who would like to regain his old records at this school-boy, 25-yard-pool distance – standard for U.S. club, high school and collegiate meets, but not recognized by the international swimming body (FINA).
Two years ago, Phelps held three records in short-course yards, but he lost two of them (in the 200 freestyle and 400 individual medley) in the onslaught of record-breaking by technical-suited collegians in 2008 and 2009.
Before the meet, Phelps wandered about the pool area largely undisturbed. When he walked over the scorer’s table to study the order of events and realized that the boys open 200 freestyle was taking place just 15 minutes before the 100 butterfly, he burst into laughter. “That’s plenty of time,” Bowman said unhelpfully as Phelps continued laughing, leaning on the table and shaking his head.
“That was actually quite good,” Bowman said later. “Nobody can come back 15 minutes later after that effort in the first race and do much better.”
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