Michael Phelps, Katie Hoff Compete at Charlotte UltraSwim; Hoff Wins 800 Meters

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 15, 2009

CHARLOTTE, May 14 -- There are many things Michael Phelps seems sure about: He seems thrilled to be back in the pool after taking nearly five months off. He intends to swim through the 2012 Summer Games, and he wants to test himself in new, shorter, sprint events.

But there is one question that left him and his coach Bob Bowman completely flummoxed on the eve of his first competition since winning eight gold medals at last summer's Olympics in Beijing: How will he actually perform at this weekend's Charlotte UltraSwim, a U.S. grand prix meet in which he will compete in five events -- three of which are largely unfamiliar.

"I have no idea how I'll do," Phelps said during a news conference jammed with national and international reporters. "I'm just going to hop in the water and see what happens.

"I'm excited to get back in the water and race. That's the one thing I love more than anything else, it's competing."

In the meet's opening race Thursday night, Phelps's training partner Katie Hoff cruised to victory in the 800 meters, but the time (8 minutes 39.35 seconds), fell nearly 20 seconds below her personal best and seven seconds under the time she posted here two years ago.

In her race's final laps, Bowman -- who coaches Phelps, Hoff and other elite swimmers at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club -- stood on the deck looking like a third base coach sending home a runner, whirling his right arm in an attempt to get her to pick up the pace. Bowman said she made a tactical error, swimming too conservatively early.

"I know she could break 8:30 today," Bowman said. "If I'm mean enough, I could make her go 8:29 right now."

Said Hoff, who is also entered in the 100, 200 and 400 freestyle: "I'm not super-psyched about the time, but I'd rather have a problem going out right now than later in the season."

Phelps, 23, meantime, was not being coy when he professed ignorance about his own competition goals. He has trained seriously for just eight weeks after a long vacation after the Olympics was extended after the publication of a photo of him appearing to smoke marijuana at a party last November created a firestorm of controversy. He decided to take on a new slate of events as well as a more intense weight-training program that, he said, has been "destroying me."

"I have no expectations," Bowman said. "I just want him to race hard to get a feel for the kind of fitness he has."

Phelps's only swim competition since the Olympics last summer came against former NFL star Warren Sapp, who good-naturedly challenged Phelps to a race while both were hanging out at a rooftop pool party in Miami in January. Despite giving Sapp a half-pool lead and swimming in long shorts and with his head above water, Phelps won.

He immediately sent Bowman a text message, announcing that he had won the first race he entered in 2009.

He doesn't expect such easy success this weekend, where he will swim the 50, 100 and 200 free as well as the 100 fly and 100 backstroke. Only the 100 fly and 200 free were a part of his Olympic program.

In the 50 and 100 free, he will unveil a straight-armed freestyle stroke, which is designed for power over short distances. Bowman said the 50 free doesn't appear likely to be a long-term event for Phelps, who is not a born speedster.

But, Phelps said, the full-out sprint will provide an interesting challenge.

"On Saturday, we will see what the new stroke does, if it's going to work or not," Phelps said. "When things are different, it's more fun."

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