Phelps ready for six races at U.S. Summer Nationals

Updated: July 31, 2006, 7:07 PM ET
Associated Press

IRVINE, Calif. -- Michael Phelps showed up on the pool deck Monday sporting a wispy mustache that looked downright wimpy on the world's best swimmer.

"Nobody likes it. I think that's why he's wearing it," said Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach. "He knows it annoys me and that's why he's doing it."

Hair today, gone tomorrow.

Phelps promised the 'stache -- which paled next to Mark Spitz's thick, dark upper lip of the 1970s -- will be history by Tuesday when he steps on the blocks for the 400-meter individual medley, his first of six planned races at this week's U.S. Summer National Championships.

"Ah, it's just a joke," he said. "I had full facial hair yesterday. It's more of jokester look than anything. I don't think anyone can take me seriously talking to me like this."

But they better take him seriously in the pool.

Phelps is the world and American record-holder in the 400 IM, having set those marks at the 2004 Athens Olympics, when he won the gold. He'll be challenged by training partner Erik Vendt and Ryan Lochte, who has the second-fastest seed time.

"You can expect some pretty amazing swims," Phelps said. "Getting ready for this was the big focus for the summer."

A lot is at stake this week, when five international teams will be selected. The top three finishers in each individual event qualify for the Pan Pacific Championships in Victoria, British Columbia, later this month.

Swimmers from that team will be in position to be chosen for next year's world championships team.

"If you don't make the team here, you're out of international competition for the next two years," Phelps said.

Lochte also plans an ambitious schedule this week. He is entered in five events, including a tough matchup against Phelps and world record-holder Ian Crocker in the 100 butterfly Thursday. He'll also challenge Phelps in the 200 IM on Friday.

Phelps is throwing an unlikely event -- the 200 backstroke -- into his repertoire, taking on world record-holder Aaron Piersol and Lochte.

"I like to race the best in those events," Phelps said. "Aaron hasn't lost since right after Sydney [in 2000]. We've had a few races and they've all gone his way."

Bowman saw the 200 back as the only event available for Phelps on Saturday, the finale of the five-day meet where Phelps figures to add to his 27 career national titles.

"I like him to swim a big program at meets like this to kind of get his head right," Bowman said. "We'll know more after this meet. We're a lot better off than we were a year ago. He's swum really well this season and he's trained well."

Last July, Phelps was humbled by his performance at the world championships. He failed to set a world record, didn't qualify for the 400 freestyle final and was soundly beaten by butterfly rival Crocker.

Sure, he won five gold medals and a silver, but Montreal "was probably the biggest wake-up I've had in my career. It was the first big meet where I've come out of it and I haven't really been pleased."

This summer, he's turned in some of his fastest in-season times ever, so he's clearly turned the corner from his tough times in Montreal.

"A lot of the good training and good swimming over the past year has been because of the disappointment from worlds," he said.

Natalie Coughlin, who won five medals at the Athens Games, will swim four events and three relays this week. In 2002 at summer nationals, she became the first woman to break the one-minute barrier in the 100 backstroke.

Four years ago, Phelps, then 17, had a breakout meet, winning four events, breaking a world record and setting the stage for his future Olympic dominance.

"That's what gives this meet the second-most intensity behind the Olympic trials," said Mark Schubert, national team head coach and general manager for USA Swimming. "This is the kind of meet where you're going to see breakouts of new, young athletes."


Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press