OMAHA, Neb.—The pieces of Katie Hoff's aquatic Chinese puzzle are beginning to come together. One stroke strengthens another. Distances seem to shrink. A skill honed gets her closer to her goal: the starting blocks in Beijing.
For Michael Phelps, it's a case of tightening his Alpha male grip on the competition so that his mere presence puts doubts in their minds.
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Last night at the Mutual of Omaha Swimvitational, the final in the Toyota Grand Prix series, Hoff and Phelps got comfortable in the venue where in three weeks they will compete for spots on the Olympic team.
Phelps won the 100-meter freestyle, coming from behind to nip Neil Walker of the Longhorn Aquatic Club. At the halfway point, Phelps was two-tenths of a second back, but he touched the wall at 48.56 to Walker's 49.0.
He also staged a comeback in the 100-meter butterfly, finishing the first length in second place, but roaring back to win with a time of 51.04.
"I really wanted to break 51 in the 100 fly but my finish wasn't too good. ... Hopefully it's something I can work on the next three weeks," Phelps said.
Phelps said he's probably going to swim just the preliminary round of the 200-meter freestyle today to concentrate on the 100-meter backstroke preliminary and final.
For Hoff, who is not swimming any of the events on her Olympic Trials schedule, a third-place finish in the 200-meter breaststroke (2 minutes, 29.77 seconds) was her best ever and just desserts-literally.
"I made a deal with myself if I got three best times [this weekend] I would get a piece of turtle cheesecake at this restaurant. So ... it's one down and two to go," she said, beaming.
The winner, Caitlin Leverenz of Arizona's El Dorado Aquatic Club (2:26.00), said she worried about Hoff and her reputation as one of the world's best individual medley swimmers.
But as Hoff was preparing to swim the 100-meter butterfly, she lost her U.S. record in the 200-meter IM. Swimming at the Janet Evans Invitational in Los Angles, Natalie Coughlin set a new mark of 2:09.77.
"I've only done this event twice in the last five years," said Coughlin, 25, a five-time Olympic medalist. "I didn't have anything else to swim today. It was first on the schedule, that's why I swam it."
Hoff, who learned of Coughlin's accomplishment in the ready room, finished fourth in the 100 butterfly with a time of 1:00.20, off her best time of 59.45 set in April at the Ohio State Grand Prix.
The only real surprise at the meet came during the morning preliminary sessions. Amanda Beard, the U.S. record holder in the 200-meter breaststroke, was disqualified when her right elbow flared out of the water during the recovery, or final, phase of a stroke on the third lap.
Phelps is still sporting an impressive wreath of drag-inducing whiskers, signaling he's not quite ready to go at full speed.
He praised the surroundings-the cavernous Qwest Center and sophisticated scoreboards. "Being able to see it now whets our appetites for Trials," he said.
But he also pointed out what the competition knows and fears about the eight-time Olympic medalist.
"A pool's a pool to me," he said, smiling. "If it has fresh water and lane lines, I can swim."