MONTREAL (AP) – Michael Phelps is back.

Phelps shook off the disappointment of his first event at the World Swimming Championships with an emphatic victory in the 200-meter freestyle Tuesday night, holding off Australian star Grant Hackett.

The 20-year-old American hung on when South Africa’s Ryk Neethling went out fast, reached the midway point under world-record pace and had enough left to get to the wall ahead of Hackett.

Phelps’ time of 1:45.20 fell short of Ian Thorpe’s 4-year-old record (1:44.06) but broke his American mark, set during a bronze-medal swim at the Athens Olympics last summer.

“I’m pretty happy with it,” Phelps said. “I slowed up a little bit going into the third wall, but came home strong with it and finished up well.”

The Americans won three of five events on the third day of swimming, giving them six golds at the pool. They have 12 medals overall.

Another U.S. teenager emerged as a star when 17-year-old Kate Ziegler swam to an impressive victory in the 1,500 free. But the stalwart of the women’s team, five-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin, was upset by Zimbabwe’s Kirsty Coventry in the 100 backstroke.

Australia’s Leisel Jones finally earned a long-denied victory in the 100 breaststroke. She beat 18-year-old American Jessica Hardy, who broke Jones’ world record in the semifinals but settled for silver in the final.

The third U.S. victory of the night was totally expected. World record holder and Olympic champion Aaron Peirsol continued his backstroke dominance with a victory in the 100. Randall Bal made it a 1-2 American finish by taking silver.

Phelps had hoped to go against Hackett in the 400 free, but the world’s best swimmer shockingly failed to qualify for the final. The Aussie star went on to capture gold.

“I don’t remember the last time I didn’t make the final,” Phelps said. “That was a big learning experience for me in case anything does happen like that in the future.”

Phelps shared his first medal of the worlds, leading off the winning U.S. effort in the 400 free relay. With his first individual victory, he’s still on pace to match the seven medals won two years ago in his breakout performance at the Barcelona world championships.

Hackett, who’ll be favored to win two more golds in the 800 and 1,500 free, added the 200 to his schedule thinking it would give him a second shot at Phelps. It turned out to be their only head-to-head meeting of the championships after Phelps’ 400 debacle.

“I knew he was going to finish strong,” Phelps said. “I saw him at the 100 and I was hoping I had enough in the tank to hold him off. When it was over, Phelps had enough strength to lift his left arm to his teammates, cheering him on from the stands. Hackett paddled over from two lanes away, the two exchanging a hug and a few laughs before crawling out of the pool.

“It would have been nicer to be a bit closer to Michael and challenge him at the end,” said Hackett, who took silver in 1:46.14. “You certainly can’t take away from his performance.”

The bronze went to Neethling. Ziegler followed the promising performances of Hardy and 16-year-old Katie Hoff by shaving nearly 11 seconds off her previous best in the 1,500.

“It’s just another swim,” said Ziegler, who won the longest event in the pool in 16:00.41 seconds – the third-fastest performance in history.

Switzerland’s Flavia Rigamonti took the silver, Canada’s Brittany Reimer the bronze.

The U.S. women came to Montreal looking to fill the void left by the absence of longtime stalwarts such as Jenny Thompson, who retired, and Amanda Beard, who’s taking the year off.

The next generation appears to be in good hands. Hoff won her first world championship in the 200 individual medley Monday, though she failed to qualify for the final of the 200 free one night later.

Coming to Montreal, Coughlin seemed to be one of the few sure things for the American women – a five-time Olympic medalist, team captain and grizzled veteran at 22.

Coughlin got off to a great start in the 100 back, making the turn more than a half-second ahead of anyone else. But the Olympic champion and only woman ever to break the 1-minute barrier in the event couldn’t hold off Coventry or Germany’s Antje Buschschulte.

Coventry used a strong finishing kick to win in 1:00.24, while the German took the silver in 1:00.84 – outstretching Coughlin by four-hundredths of a second.

“You want to win, but you can’t win all the time,” Coughlin said. “As you’ve seen throughout this meet, there’s been really unexpected outcomes in a lot of events. And this was another one.”

Coventry, adding to a silver medal in the 200 IM, reveled in the role of underdog. She said Coughlin “tends to put a lot of pressure on (herself). People expect a lot.”

Hardy, swimming in her first international meet, couldn’t match her semifinal performance in the 100 breast.

Jones powered to the wall in 1:06.25 – just five-hundredths off the world record set by Hardy the previous night. The teenager settled for silver in 1:06.62, while another American, Tara Kirk, claimed the bronze.

Jones struggled to break through in the biggest meets, finishing either second or third in the 100 breast at the last two Olympics, as well as the 2001 and 03 world championships.

Now, the former world record holder – it was her mark Hardy broke – is finally a champion.

“Good things come to those who wait,” Jones said. “I waited a long time, so it makes it sweeter.” Peirsol won the 100 back in 53.62, beating out Bal by a comfortable four-tenths of a second. The bronze went to Hungary’s Laszio Cseh.

“It was just a good solid race,” Peirsol said. “I just keep pounding away at that thing.”

AP-ES-07-26-05 2128EDT

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