Phelps off to winning start; Jones making history at worlds

Associated Press • Mar 26, 2007 at 12:54 PM

MELBOURNE, Australia - Michael Phelps wants to change the sport of swimming. Cullen Jones might just beat him to it.

Jones became the rare black swimmer to claim a world championship, joining Phelps, Neil Walker and Jason Lezak on a U.S. team that just missed setting another world record while winning the 400-meter freestyle relay Sunday.

"Obviously, he's a role model to a lot of athletes," said Lezak, who has become something of a mentor to the 23-year-old Jones. "It's a tough job. He's got a whole community on his shoulders."

Anthony Ervin was the first U.S. swimmer of black heritage to claim world and Olympic titles, but he was hesitant to discuss his background. His father was 75 percent black, his mother white and the light-skinned Ervin once said, "I don't look black."

Jones, a native of Newark, N.J., doesn't shy away from the color of his skin, hoping his success will help promote the sport in the black community.

"It's definitely great to be one of the first African-Americans to win a world championship," he said. "For me, this is a great step."

Lezak just hopes it's not too much to handle.

"I'm sure it's got to be a little stressful for him," Lezak said. "I hope he realizes that he can't change the world, but he can make it better."

Phelps is hoping for an Olympic redux. He plans to take part in the same eight events that he swam at the 2004 Athens Games, where he won six golds and two bronze medals. If his body holds up, he'll make another attempt at Beijing to take down Mark Spitz's hallowed mark of seven gold medals.

With one gold medal out of the way, Phelps returned Monday morning for his first individual race, qualifying second in the 200 free. The defending world champion put up a time of 1 minute, 47.52 seconds, just behind Dutch rival Pieter van den Hoogenband (1:47.36).

Those two were part of the "Race of the Century" at the 2004 Athens Olympics, with Hoogie finishing second and Phelps third behind gold medalist Ian Thorpe. Any hopes of a true rematch were ruined with Thorpe retired a few months ago.

Klete Keller of the United States had another disappointing race. He went out in the preliminaries for the second day in a row, managing just the 18th-best time.

"It got progressively worse as the season went on," said Keller, who also failed to qualify for the 400 freestyle final. "That's not the way you want to do it."

On the first night of swimming at the world championships, the Australians won the women's 400 freestyle relay when Jodie Henry rallied to overtake American Kara Lynn Joyce; Park Tae-hwan of South Korea came from behind to knock off Aussie favorite Grant Hackett in the men's 400 free; and French world record-holder Laure Manaudou cruised to an easy win in the women's 400 free.

But no world records were set at Rod Laver Arena, where several swimmers complained of murky, cold water and excessive waves in the temporary pool.

Phelps got off to his usual slow start in the relay, but he swam down the field on the return lap to put the Americans out front by the time Walker hit the water. The Americans steadily pulled away, with Jones swimming the third leg and Lezak bringing it home in 3 minutes, 12.72 seconds.

It was the second-fastest time in history, eclipsed only by the world record of 3:12.46 turned in by the same foursome last August. Italy took the silver and France claimed bronze.

In the women's relay, Henry was joined on the winning team by Libby Lenton, Melanie Schlanger and Shayne Reese. They chased down the Americans, who led off with Natalie Coughlin and were out front after swims by Lacey Nymeyer and Amanda Weir.

Joyce couldn't deny Henry, who finished strong to win in 3:35.48. The United States claimed the silver at 3:36.68, while the Netherlands finished third.

"I was trying to hold her off, but she really poured it on those last 25 meters," Joyce said.

On Monday, Coughlin qualified first in the 100 backstroke at 1:00.38. The world record holder in that event, she's taken on a larger program than usual for these championships, with plans to swim four individual events plus the relays.

Aaron Peirsol, the world record holder and defending Olympic and world champ in the men's 100 backstroke, coasted through the morning prelims with the fourth-fastest time. Markus Rogan of Austria was fastest at 54.34.

"I think everybody was holding back," Peirsol said. "Let's put it this way: I was not trying to set a world record this morning."

Tara Kirk of the U.S. was top qualifier in the women's 100 breaststroke at 1:07.23, just ahead of world record holder Leisel Jones of Australia. The other American, Jessica Hardy, qualified fifth. Park made a furious sprint over the final 50 meters of the 400 free, passing three swimmers - Hackett included - before he touched the wall in 3:44.30 to become his country's first world champion. In fact, it was the first medal of any kind for the South Koreans in world championship history. "It's my first medal, but I don't feel any more famous than when I arrived here," said Park, who was back at the pool Monday to put up the third-best time in the 200 free prelims. "Not I'm apparently world famous, but I don't feel it." Tunisia's Oussama Mellouli took the silver and Hackett held on for the bronze after barely qualifying for the final. The women's 400 free went as expected, though Manaudou seemed a bit disappointed not to break her own world record. After taking down Janet Evans' 18-year-old record last May and going even lower three months later, Manaudou was nearly a half-second under record pace early in the race but faded at the end. She finished in 4:02.61. The French star shrugged her shoulders and rolled her eyes when she saw the time, about a half-second off her world mark of 4:02.13. Then she held up her left hand, where she had written "LOVE" across the palm - a message to her boyfriend. The silver went to Otylia Jedrzejczak of Poland, while Japan's Ai Shibata claimed the bronze. Americans Katie Hoff and Kate Ziegler finished fourth and sixth. "It was disappointing not to get the record, but I still won," Manaudou said. "I will try for the record next year."

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