Michael Phelps leads strong US team at Pan Pacific swimming meet

By Beth Harris, AP
Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Halfway to London Olympics at Pan Pacific meet

IRVINE, Calif. — The Pan Pacific Championships are a way for Michael Phelps and everyone else to figure out where they are halfway to the London Olympics.

The year’s biggest international swimming meet begins Wednesday, with Phelps racing in the 200-meter butterfly, the first of four individual events.

“I’m not as happy as I want to be with my swimming and I know how to change that,” said Phelps, who suffered two losses in the recent U.S. nationals in the same pool.

Besides Phelps, the U.S. team is loaded with world record-holders Ryan Lochte, Aaron Peirsol and Jessica Hardy, and 11-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin.

The U.S. brought the biggest team — 60 swimmers — to the outdoor William Woollett Jr. Aquatic Center, the site of the 2005 Duel in the Pool between the U.S. and Australia.

At stake for the Americans are berths on the national team for next year’s world championships in Shanghai.

The Aussies brought 59 swimmers, although one-third are newcomers getting their first taste of major international competition. Some of them are vying for the last spot on their national team for the Commonwealth Games in October.

“It’s a rebuilding of the Australian swim team,” coach Leigh Nugent said Tuesday. “We’re trying to put 2009 behind us with the suits.”

The meet is a test of the new swimsuit rules put in place earlier this year, banning the neck-to-ankle outfits that helped produce 43 world records at last year’s world championships in Rome.

Men are only allowed to wear waist-to-knee “jammers,” while women must wear shoulder-to-knee suits and only textile materials may be used.

“Now we’re in a place where it’s a much more level playing field,” said Nugent, who speculated times this week could be closer to last year’s records, especially in the women’s events.

Aussie Brenton Rickard won gold in the 100 breaststroke with a world-record time at last year’s worlds wearing a now-banned suit.

“The whole drama that was 2009 probably took away from some of the racing that occurred,” he said. “I still feel I’m the world champion and I want to prove that again.”

Last week’s European championships produced several of the world’s fastest times this year, but no world marks.

“I think it’s going to be a super-fast event,” Nugent said.

Each country is limited to two swimmers in the finals, which puts pressure to advance out of the morning preliminaries.

Triple Olympic gold medalist Stephanie Rice remains a question mark for the Aussies because of a shoulder injury. She is entered in four events, including the 50-meter butterfly on Wednesday.

“Her shoulder is tender, so it’s a day-by-day proposition,” Nugent said. “She’s been able to swim quite well some days and some days not so good.”

Aussie Olympian Leisel Jones, who took most of last year off, will challenge American Rebecca Soni in the breaststroke events.

“It’s always good when you have someone who is a small margin in front of you,” Jones said.

Jess Schipper will defend her Pan Pac titles from 2006 in the butterfly events, while 18-year-old Emily Seebohm challenges Olympic champion Natalie Coughlin in the 100 backstroke.

Canada has a 57-member team and Japan brought 49 swimmers, including two-time Olympic breaststroke champion Kosuke Kitajima. Brazil has 44 swimmers, including world and Olympic freestyle sprint champion Cesar Cielo.

China is here, too, although with just four swimmers.

At last year’s worlds, the U.S. topped the gold medal table, followed by China, Germany and Australia.

“We’re using it as motivation to help us try harder,” Schipper said about the Aussies’ fall from being the world’s No. 2 swimming power.

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