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Phelps Working on Short Game for 2012

Last summer in the Olympic Games in Beijing, Michael Phelps was perfect.

This summer at the U.S. swimming championships that begin here today and at worlds in Rome this month, he will be a work in progress.

With his sights on the 2012 Summer Games, Phelps, 24, is trying a midcareer shift likely to challenge even a swimmer with 14 Olympic gold medals. Phelps has shelved events such as the 400-meter individual medley, which he has dominated for nearly a decade, to test his skills in shorter races, including one of swimming's glamour sprint events, the 100 freestyle.

"I have unfinished business," Phelps said Monday. "When I look back on my career, I want to say I did everything that I wanted to do."

In warm-up meets in recent weeks, he has won the 100 freestyle once and finished second twice. He has set a personal best in the 100 butterfly but also has finished second twice in the 100 backstroke.

"It's going to be really difficult for him," says swimming analyst Rowdy Gaines, who won the 100 freestyle in the 1984 Olympics. "I think it takes a tremendous amount of courage, swimming-wise, to step out of your comfort zone."

Phelps, who won all eight events he swam in Beijing, is entering an arena in which races usually are won at the start instead of the end, where he is most lethal. He will have fewer turns with which to gain ground with his otherworldly underwater dolphin kick.

And in the 100 freestyle, he will be up against a deep field that, with a host of new swimsuits and the emergence of French sprinters, is posting blazing-fast times.

"For now, I think this is keeping him interested in the sport," says David Marsh, who has coached many world-class sprinters, including American Cullen Jones, who won a gold medal in the 4x100 freestyle relay in Beijing, and France's Fred Bousquet, the world recordholder in the 50 freestyle.

"And for Michael Phelps just to keep swimming is a big win for the entire sport."

Phelps set the American record in the 100 freestyle (47.51 seconds) while swimming the leadoff leg of the 4x100 freestyle relay in Beijing. But the world record is almost a half-second faster, an eternity in such a short race.

"In the 100 free, I know I'm not the best. But if I have the opportunity to step up and race the best, that's something I've always enjoyed," says Phelps, who competed in the 200 freestyle in the 2004 Athens Olympics despite being an underdog and finished third. It was the only one of five individual events in the 2004 Games he didn't win.

At this week's U.S. championships, Phelps is entered in the 100 and 200 freestyle and the 100 and 200 butterfly. The top two finishers in each event at nationals will qualify for worlds.

Phelps has the fastest time among the U.S. competitors entered this week in the 100 freestyle. But at worlds, com petitors such as world recordholder Eamon Sullivan of Australia and Alain Bernard, who swam the anchor leg of the silver medal-winning French freestyle relay team in last year's Olympics, will be favored.

Phelps' program could have him swimming seven events at worlds (including three relays), although he might skip either the 200 butterfly or the 100 freestyle in Rome because of how they fall in the schedule.

"We'll have to see how they both go (at nationals) and take it from there," says Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman.

Even amid delivering the single greatest Olympic performance ever in Beijing, Phelps knew he would need a new challenge to keep him churning through practice laps for another four years.

"One of the things that's very hard for Michael - and it's very hard for me - is we just can't come in and do the same old thing," says Bowman, who has coached Phelps for 13 years. "No matter how good it is, we just can't."

Trading versatility for precision

Phelps' Beijing results gave him motivation: Despite winning the 100 butterfly in a dramatic finish, he didn't set a world record; and his goggles filled with water during the 200 butterfly final, preventing him from lowering his world record by as much as he wanted.

"The only thing that really keeps me going is the goals that I have," Phelps says, though only he and Bowman know specifically what they are.

Hours before the 400 IM final in Beijing, Phelps told Bowman he wanted that to be his last race in the event that combines all four swimming strokes (the butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle). Phelps has held the 400 IM world record since 2002, lowering it more than seven seconds in that span.

Training for the 400 IM gave Phelps the versatility and endurance he drew upon to do what he did in Beijing.

To become a world-beater in the 100-meter events, he will need more technical precision - "In the 100, you just have to do everything perfectly," U.S. national team coach Mark Schubert says - and more get-up-and-go speed.

"Everything we've done before was geared toward saving energy or being able to carry this moderate level of speed over a distance," Bowman says. "So we never really asked him to take it out fast, because we always thought it was more important to finish fast."

Phelps has had limited time to make the shift.

He took several months off post-Beijing and served a three-month suspension levied by USA Swimming after a photo surfaced in February of him with a marijuana bong.

Since returning to training in March, Phelps has focused on regaining his fitness (he has lost about 20 pounds) and on testing a straight-arm freestyle stroke.

The stroke, which mimics a windmill motion, takes more strength and effort than the traditional freestyle stroke but is all the rage in swimming, primarily because of high-tech swimsuits that make it easier to sustain.

Jones, who will compete against Phelps this week in the 100 freestyle, also changed to the straight-arm stroke for this season.

The controversial suits, which are under review but will be allowed at nationals and worlds, reduce drag in the water and greatly enhance buoyancy, allowing swimmers to conserve energy for their strokes.

"I think the (straight-arm) stroke kind of lends itself to the tactics that you need to use when you're wearing a new suit," Schubert says.

Despite the head-turning times being posted in suits such as the Arena X-Glide and Jaked 01, Phelps is sticking with the LZR he wore in Beijing, made by his longtime sponsor, Speedo. He will wear different styles of the LZR depending on the event he is swimming.

'Now it's more about the quality'

In the meets he has entered this season, Phelps has used the straight-arm stroke mostly in the first half of the 100 freestyle, where he needs to pick up his pace.

If he can be first to the 50-meter mark or at least tied with the other top sprinters at the turn, Phelps can summon his closing speed to win, Bowman says.

"The question for him is that first 25 (meters)," Gaines says. "He just doesn't have that raw speed yet. He may have it this summer. My guess is it's still going to take another year or so for him to develop that."

Bowman plans to incorporate more power lifting, for more strength in his stroke and greater explosiveness, and perhaps running and cycling in Phelps' training over the next three years. His workouts in the water will be more sprint-oriented, and he will swim fewer meters overall.

At a recent high-altitude training camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Phelps swam about 50,000 meters (31 miles) a week, down from a pre-Beijing high of 80,000 (49.7 miles).

"Now it's more about the quality," Bowman says. "For his life, it's just better for him right now. He needs to be able to go play golf sometimes, and he needs to have enough energy to go do that. He needs to not be the walking wounded for three years."

Phelps has lowered his score this year on one golf course near his Baltimore home to 98 from 115. His weakness?

"The short game," Phelps says. "It kills me."

Not surprising for someone who, un-til now, has been training for longer distances.

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