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SWIMMING CHAMPIONSHIPS

Phelps focused on worlds

March 18, 2007|From the Associated Press

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA — There's all sorts of intriguing rivalries shaping up at the world championship pool. The Aussies vs. the Americans. Grant Hackett vs. the record book. The Chinese divers vs. everyone else.

Then there's Michael Phelps, who's still just racing himself.

This guy is so good his performance at the last worlds in Montreal -- five gold medals and a silver two years ago -- was actually considered a major disappointment. Talk about some high expectations.

"It's really funny when people say Phelps is struggling," fellow American Natalie Coughlin said. "He's set the bar very, very high for himself. He's done some incredible things. It's really important that the swimming world just realize what an amazing athlete they have and not take him for granted. We can't expect him to break a world record every time he swims, even though it does seem to happen."

Lately, it seems to be happening more and more. Phelps has taken part in three world records since August (two individual races and one relay), proving he's back on form after a bit of a post-Olympic lull.

"I am definitely pleased right now with how things are going," he said. "This gives me a big confidence vote heading into worlds."

The gangly American figures to be the dominant figure at the 12th FINA world championships, which opened this weekend. Hmmm, that sounds familiar. Didn't he already turn in one of the greatest performances ever at the 2003 worlds in Barcelona? Wasn't he the biggest star of the 2004 Olympics in Athens?

Yes and yes.

But swimming, which will be held in a temporary pool at Rod Laver Arena (home of tennis' Australian Open), doesn't get started until the second week of the 16-day event. Diving takes center stage at the beginning, along with open water swimming, water polo and synchronized swimming.

The Chinese are the most dominant nation off the board, taking five of the 10 golds in Montreal. They clearly have their eyes on a sweep at their home Olympics in 2008, though Canada's Alexandre Despatie and American Laura Wilkinson are among those standing in the way.

Despatie took two golds on the springboard in Montreal, and Wilkinson followed up a gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics with another championship at the 2005 worlds.

"The Chinese athletes have done some amazing things the last few years," Wilkinson said. "But they're still human. They still have flaws. They're still beatable."

After the U.S. failed to win a medal of any color at the Athens Games (its first shutout since 1912), officials changed the selection process. Now, the athletes are picked using a series of camps, similar to gymnastics, with more emphasis on doing a wider range of dives.

"We're the best we have been as a team over the past few years," said Troy Dumais, another American diver. "On paper, we look as good as anybody else. At the time we step on the board, will it happen or will it not? It's getting to the point where we believe it can. Anything is possible."

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