INDIANAPOLIS ——Neither Michael Phelps nor Katie Hoff swam Friday at U.S. nationals. Phelps had to pull out of the 100-meter freestyle with neck pain, and Hoff withdrew from her final two events, putting an end to a meet where she never felt right physically or mentally. And yet North Baltimore Aquatic Club still had plenty to thump its chest about, thanks to a happy-go-lucky 15-year-old who seems to be emerging as the next big thing in American swimming.
For the third time this week, Elizabeth Pelton posted a career-best time and finished second in an individual event, earning yet another spot alongside Phelps on the U.S. team headed to Rome for the world championships, which start Friday.
Pelton - who already had runner-up finishes in the 200-meter individual medley and the 100-meter backstroke - finished second to Elizabeth Beisel in the 200-meter backstroke Friday, touching the wall in 2 minutes, 9.19 seconds. Because Team USA takes the top two finishers in the 100-meter backstroke as automatic qualifiers for the 50-meter backstroke, Pelton is the only American swimmer - male or female - to have made the team in four individual events.
Even Phelps, who made the team in three, can't say that. Pelton won't swim all four at the world championships and is likely to drop the 200 individual medley because it takes place the same night as the 100-meter backstroke, but for someone so young, and with so little international experience before this meet, this week has been like swimming in a dream.
"I'm really happy," Pelton said. "I really didn't expect this. I haven't even thought about [world championships]. It's just starting to sink in."
Phelps' day sank before it could even begin to float. On Thursday morning, he woke up with what he described as "a kink in my neck from sleeping funny" that caused him considerable pain every time he looked to his left. He was able to swim in the 100-meter butterfly after heat and electric stimulation - and break the world record in the event - but when he woke up Friday morning, the pain had intensified. Because Phelps turns to his left to breathe in the 100-meter freestyle, it was too much pain to bear.
"I hopped in the water and could literally not move my neck to breathe," Phelps said. "I said: 'Why don't we just give it a shot? Who cares?' But after talking to the doctor, Bob [Bowman] said we needed to not risk something long term."
Any member of the United States team is eligible to swim on the relay team, and Phelps is still the American-record holder in the 100-meter freestyle. Bowman will be the head coach for the world championships, so it's pretty much a certainty Phelps will still have a spot on the 400-meter freestyle relay team, even without posting a time. At this point, asking Phelps to prove he deserves to be among the four Americans selected for that race would be akin to asking George Clooney to audition for a part in a movie.
"I don't think there is any question that Michael has proven he can swim pretty fast on relays and he's in top form," Bowman said.
Pelton's coach, Paul Yetter, expected his swimmer to be in top form this week, but even he has been impressed with how it has all unfolded. Pelton's father was a college swimmer and her mother swam in high school, and Pelton is nearly 5 feet 10 with long arms and legs, so the sport was clearly in her genes.
But living in Connecticut meant driving an hour to New York to train and then an hour home each day, and when Pelton started knocking down a ton of age-group records, her family saw the success Yetter was having with Hoff and decided to make the move to Baltimore in the summer of 2006. Pelton's father, Gregory Pelton, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, still works in New York during the week and makes the commute home each weekend.
"My parents were like, 'This is ridiculous; we can't do this anymore,' " Pelton said. "It was either another place in New York or North Baltimore. We came down to NBAC and met Paul and thought, 'OK, this is where we want to go.' "
Yetter had noticed Pelton's talents at various junior national meets, but he had no idea she was thinking of moving to Baltimore until she showed up in Mount Washington with her mom and brother, Greg, 18, who also swims at Meadowbrook Aquatic Center.
"She is really such a cool, calm, confident kid," Yetter said. "That's just how she is. ... We just walked around Meadowbrook, and I just remember we were really excited about the possibilities."
Like Hoff, Pelton is home-schooled, which she says is really the only way to deal with her swimming schedule. She said she's no different, really, from typical teenagers. She used to play softball but gave it up when she realized swimming was going to be a major part of her life. Natalie Coughlin was one of her idols. She acknowledges she's a few years behind on her pop culture, having just recently gotten hooked on the television show The O.C. She has become fairly close friends with Beisel, who is something of an American swimming veteran even though she is only 16, having made three international teams.
"She's a great kid, and I've actually known her for a long time because we've been competing against one another for so long," Beisel said. "She's very bubbly, like me, and very friendly. She's had a great meet, and she definitely has potential to medal at world championships."
Pelton said she's just starting to realize that people like her, Beisel and Dagny Knutson are the future of USA Swimming.
"I think we're kind of the next generation, and we're all kind of making our move," Pelton said.