MONTREAL (AP) – If Michael Phelps is going to be the star of the World Swimming Championships, he’ll have to fend off Grant Hackett.

The Australian set a world record in the 800-meter freestyle Wednesday night, his second gold and third medal of the championships. His time of 7 minutes, 38.65 seconds broke the mark set four years ago by countryman Ian Thorpe.

Hackett was more than five seconds under Thorpe’s pace at 600 meters, but it got tight at the end.

When Hackett touched the wall, his head popped out the water and he turned to look at the scoreboard. “Yeah!” he screamed upon seeing the time – 51-hundredths of a second under Thorpe’s record.

Hackett turned toward the stands and held aloft his right index finger, a proper indicator of his status as the world’s best long-distance freestyler and most prolific medal winner in meet history.

“I have to be on my toes all the time,” said Hackett, savoring his 15th world championship medal – two more than anyone else.

Phelps had his busiest day of the championships, swimming four times to qualify for the finals of the 100 free and 200 individual medley.

No slip-ups this time.

“It’s pretty much downhill from here,” Phelps said. “I have a morning to sleep in, then let loose tomorrow night.”

The 20-year-old American is on pace to win seven medals, but Hackett isn’t done, either. The 1,500 free is his signature event and he’ll anchor the Aussies in the 800 free relay, expected to be a spirited battle with Phelps and his U.S. teammates.

Phelps is used to being the biggest thing at the pool, a once-in-a-generation swimmer who can do amazing things every time he dives in. It began with the 2003 championships in Barcelona and continued through the Athens Olympics last summer.

That’s why it was so stunning when he failed to qualify for the final of the 400 freestyle, where he had hoped to challenge Hackett.

Phelps’ coach has yet to figure it out.

“It seems like he’s normal,” Bob Bowman said. “I don’t know what the hell the problem was Sunday.”

A few hours after his flop, Phelps led off an impressive American victory in the 400 free relay. On Tuesday, he held off Hackett in the 200 free, capturing a second gold and breaking the American record in the process.

“If we ever wanted to know about his character, I think it showed the last 48 hours,” Bowman said. “It was good to deal with something like that.”

On Wednesday, Phelps got through two preliminary swims in the morning and two semifinal races in the evening – both times about an hour apart. He was the top qualifier in the 200 IM and fifth-fastest in the 100 free.

“Things are going much better than they did the first day,” he said. “I seem to be improving throughout the meet, so I can’t complain right now.”

Two years ago, Phelps had his breakout performance at the world championships, winning five golds, seven medals overall and becoming the first swimmer to set five world records at a single meet.

He did one better in Athens – six golds, eight medals in all and an everlasting place as one of the greatest athletes in Olympic history.

But, as Bowman pointed out, Phelps can’t keep outdoing himself. He’s got to slow down a bit, try new things, prepare himself to be at his best three years from now in Beijing.

“If you look at his linear progression, it pretty much goes like this,” Bowman said, moving his right hand steadily upward. “I don’t think he can be up all the time. He can’t do it every year until 2008.”

With that in mind, Phelps dropped the 400 IM and 200 butterfly for this meet, even though he was the world record holder, defending Olympic champion and virtually assured of victories in both. He substituted the 100 and 400 free, looking to stay motivated and give himself a few more options before the Beijing Games.

The 400 didn’t work out.

The 100? Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, on a damp, rainy night at Parc Jean-Drapeau, Pawel Korzeniowski of Poland took advantage of Phelps’ absence in the 200 fly to win the gold.

His time of 1:55.02 seconds was more than a second off the American’s world record.

Japan’s Takeshi Matsuda took second, China’s Wu Peng third.

Thirty-five-year-old Mark Warneke of Germany won the 50 breaststroke in 27.63, holding off American Mark Gangloff and Japanese Olympic champion Kosuke Kitajima.

Still to come: a duel with American rival Ian Crocker in the 100 butterfly, plus two more relays that should produce medals for Phelps.

Solenne Figues of France captured gold in the women’s 200 freestyle, winning in 1:58.60. Italy’s Federica Pelligrini was second, while Yang Yu of China and Josefin Lillhage of Sweden shared the bronze.

Phelps will be an overwhelming favorite in the 200 IM, but the 100 free is a tougher challenge. Roland Schoeman and Ryk Neethling of South Africa appear to be the swimmers to beat at that distance.

Still to come: a duel with American rival Ian Crocker in the 100 butterfly, plus two more relays that should produce medals for Phelps.

Somewhere down the road, he’ll give the 400 free another try.

“He will definitely do it again,” Bowman said, his face morphing into a devilish grin.

“Hey, he’s off tomorrow morning. Maybe I’ll time him again in the morning. I’m sure he would go faster than he did the other day.”

AP-ES-07-27-05 2045EDT

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