Still a year away from the Summer Olympics, coaches, commentators and swimming enthusiasts are already running out of adjectives to describe what Michael Phelps is capable of in the pool. You have to dig deep to capture his latest feat - nearly breaking the world record in an event that wasn't even part of his last Olympic program.
"Another Michael moment basically," said Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach with Club Wolverine.
Phelps won the 200-meter backstroke last night with a time of 1 minute, 54.65 seconds, less than 0.3 of a second off the world-record pace. It was the first of two golds yesterday for Phelps, who was also a part of the first-place 400-meter freestyle relay team. And even though he won the backstroke race, there's a part of him that glimpsed the winning time and couldn't help but feel a slight pang of disappointment.
"That's what keeps me hungry," he said of barely missing the record. "Being so close to something and not really achieving it. It makes me hungry for the next time I swim that race."
Phelps' time is the third best in the event's history. Ryan Lochte set the world record - 1:54.32 - at the world championships in March but was well off that pace last night, finishing fourth with a time of 1:59.11. Lochte will have a few more chances at Phelps, as the two are scheduled to square off today in the 400-meter freestyle, Friday in the 100 backstroke and Saturday in the 200 individual medley.
For Phelps, the 200 backstroke is considered an "off" event, even though he's had success in the it in the past. He hasn't committed to adding the 200 backstroke to his Olympic trials program. The event was not among his seven first-place finishes at the world championships four months ago, and Phelps said he was curious to see where he stood.
"Tonight's event was the event I was looking forward to the most," he said.
With Phelps swimming the first leg, his Club Wolverine won the 400 freestyle relay in 3:17.96.
For the second straight day, Towson's Katie Hoff also competed in an "off" event, and for the second straight day she also made waves. Following Tuesday's personal best in the 800 freestyle, Hoff took first in the 200 backstroke last night. She managed to shave more than three seconds off her personal best, winning with a time of 2:10.31.
"Both of these days have been pressure-free for me. I didn't go into these ranked in the top two or anything like that," she said. "It's been fun being able to drop my times and see where I stack up against the best in these two events."
Hoff won three world championships in March, competing in the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys and the 800 freestyle relay. This week's marks certainly raise questions about just how many events Hoff might try at next year's Olympic trials.
Swimming in the C-final of the 200 backstroke was 16-year-old Austin Surhoff of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. Surhoff is the son of former Orioles outfielder B.J. Surhoff. He came into the race with the 45th seeding but finished in 22nd place with a time of 2:05.05.
One of the most intriguing results yesterday came in the women's 100-meter freestyle, which was won by 40-year-old Dara Torres. Torres first raced in the 1984 Olympics and after having a child and a six-year layoff, she's hoping to make her fifth Summer Games next year in Beijing.
She spoke with reporters lying on her back in the middle of the media workroom, as one trainer used her feet to massage Torres' shoulders and another stood and stomped on her legs.
"I can't bounce off the walls like these young kids, you know," she said. "It just doesn't happen. I know I'm going to be sore a couple of days after that race and they can just come back tomorrow and swim no problem."
Torres has the best seed time for Saturday's 50-meter freestyle, as well.
Before this week's competition even began, the North Baltimore Aquatic Club lost one of its top competitors. Courtney Kalisz slipped in the shower and fractured her elbow Monday night, coach Murray Stephens said. She was wearing a soft cast Tuesday and returned home yesterday, missing last night's 200-meter butterfly.
Last month, Kalisz, a 17-year-old from Bel Air, won silver in the 200 butterfly at the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Though she's sidelined for an undetermined amount of time, Stephens says her experience in Brazil should prepare her for next year.
"She got a good taste of what it will take to be competitive in the Olympic trials," Stephens said. "She got enough this summer she knows what the height of the meter is."
Also from North Baltimore Aquatic Club, Brennan Morris, 16, finished seventh in the 400-meter individual medley, more than nine seconds behind Lochte. More important, though, Morris' time - 4:22.48 - qualified him to compete at the Japan International Grand Prix from Aug. 21-24 in Chiba, Japan.
Other local finishers from last night's finals include Kailey Morris, 19, who finished 12th in the 400 IM in 4:51.37 and 15-year-old Felicia Lee, who finished 20th in 2:16.72 in the C-final of the 200 backstroke.