Charlotte: Michael Phelps has plenty of work to do before the swimming World Championships in Shanghai in July, as a sixth-place finish in the 200m free at the Charlotte UltraSwim showed.
Phelps, swimming in lane one after notching just the seventh-fastest qualifying time, on Friday finished 1.34 seconds behind race winner Dominik Meichtry of Switzerland.
Phelps, whose 14 Olympic gold medals include the eight he won in a dazzling Beijing Olympics campaign, has yet to regain the dominance he lost in the wake of that unprecedented performance.
He admitted he was just relieved to be in the 200m free final, after watching Ricky Berens and Ryan Lochte storm through the heats.
"I was just praying to get in," said Phelps, who is also slated to swim the 200m backstroke and 200m butterfly here. "I watched Ryan and Ricky go off in their heats, and wondered if I`d end up in the B heat."
Phelps has been saying since last year that he is paying the price for lax training. At the Michigan Grand Prix last month he was stunned by a fourth-place finish in the 200m fly -- an event in which he hadn`t lost since 2002.
Phelps apparently isn`t the only one feeling the strain, as his longtime coach Bob Bowman said he`d taken himself off to Australia for three weeks last month -- putting some space between himself and his superstar swimmer who is also now a business partner.
"I felt my attitude was bad about everything and I wasn`t helping him (Phelps) or myself or anybody else," Bowman said. "I`m just trying to start fresh."
Now, Bowman and Phelps say, they are focused on Shanghai, with the 2012 Olympics looming after that.
"We have 72 days to prepare for Shanghai, and that`s where the focus is," Bowman said.
Phelps, 25, insisted he`s up for the challenge, even after a disappointing finish like Friday`s.
"Before, it came easy for me," Phelps said. "I don`t have two speeds anymore. I need to focus on the small things that I once took for granted."
Meichtry won the race in 1:48.55, triumphing over a field that featured six Olympians -- including all of the US 4x200m freestyle relay team.
"It`s better for me to swim fast, get out front, and hold on, rather than try to catch the field," said Meichtry, who swam for Switzerland in Beijing himself.
"It`s not like horse racing, where you can come from the back of the field. This event isn`t long enough to hold back. This was a chance to swim with the big boys."
Meichtry wasn`t the only overseas winner in the USA Swimming Grand Prix meeting.
Hungary`s Katinka Hosszu won the women`s 400m individual medley and Germany`s Yannick Lebherz won the men`s 400m IM.
Rising American star Missy Franklin, two days past her 16th birthday, won the women`s 200m free in 1:57.66.
Rebecca Soni beat Jessica Hardy in the 100m breaststroke with a meet record 1:05.57. Hardy finished in 1:05.90, nearly three seconds ahead of third-place Jillian Tyler.