Ryan Lochte wins 400 IM at nationals

IRVINE, Calif. -- Ryan Lochte won the 400-meter individual medley at the U.S. championships on Tuesday night with the fastest time in the world this year.

Lochte overcame a left groin injury to finish in 4 minutes, 9.98 seconds -- more than five seconds faster than runner-up Tyler Clary.

Olympian Christine Magnuson had the year's fastest time in winning the 100 butterfly.

Michael Phelps took opening night off but will swim five events over the next four days. At stake in the meet are spots on the U.S. team for the Pan Pacific championships later this month -- the year's only major international meet -- and for the world championships next year.

Katie Hoff won the 400 freestyle, her first national title in two years. During that chaotic time, she changed coaches three times and moved her training base from Baltimore to Fullerton, Calif.

Lochte, the Olympic bronze medalist, trailed Clary by half a body length halfway through the race that features all four strokes. Lochte edged ahead on the breaststroke leg -- a stroke he wasn't sure he could swim because of the injury he suffered a week ago in practice.

"My groin didn't hurt. I said if it's not hurting now, let's push it," he said.

Lochte, a notorious free spirit, celebrated his 26th birthday by wearing glitzy new shoes to the starting blocks. He came up with the idea for the hightops covered in green rhinestones and tied with green satin laces. His favorite expression "Jeah" -- his version of wow -- was spelled in yellow on the back of the shoes made by his swimsuit sponsor.

He credited his fast time to his footwear.

"I think it gave me power," he said before turning serious. "After that first 50, I was like, 'Man, I think I got something.' I've trained for it. I was just a matter of putting it together."

Magnuson, the Olympic silver medalist, was 0.12 seconds under world-record pace at the turn and touched in 57.32 seconds. She beat out Dana Vollmer, who finished second in 57.45.

Vollmer previously had the world's fastest time of 57.39.

"I saw Dana coming back and she's a good finisher. It just motivated me," Magnuson said. "I wasn't sure how I'd feel about a big rivalry with Dana, but we always keep it friendly. I think me and Dana could really do some damage at Pan Pacs and worlds next year."

Vollmer, a 2004 Olympian, didn't make the U.S. team for Beijing, a failure that has motivated her ever since.

"The 2008 trials was the hardest, emotional meet I had," she said. "I had lost sight of why I love this sport. It's fun, it's a game and I love racing."

Natalie Coughlin, an 11-time Olympic medalist, was fourth as she continues the comeback she began earlier this year, having taken two years off after Beijing.

"It's really odd to be back at a big meet. I'm so calm it's almost eerie," she said. "I need to be a little bit more nervous than I am now."

World champion Ariana Kukors won the 200 individual medley, edging out Caitlin Leverenz. Kukors finished in 2:10.54 -- a whopping 4.39 seconds slower than the world-record time she set at last year's world championships in Rome wearing a polyurethane suit.

"I got so much criticism for that time and it took it down for me," Kukors said about winning her first world title with a time of 2:06.15. "People said I was a suit swimmer."

In January, new rules took effect on how much skin could be covered and what fabrics could be used. The neck-to-ankle suits made of rubber that triggered a world-record frenzy the last two years were banned.

Now women are only allowed to wear shoulder-to-knee suits, while men must wear waist-to-knee "jammers" and only textile materials may be used.

"I took all my best times back to what they were pre-suit days. I consider my best time 2:10.34 that I did in March," Kukors said. "I think the world record is 2:09.71."

That was Hoff's time from the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials. Hoff skipped the event Tuesday.

Hoff won the 400 free in 4:05.50 -- tied for fourth-fastest in the world this year -- well off her American record of 4:02.20 set during the rubber-suit craze in 2008.

"I'm happy to have a good swim and kick off nationals right," she said. "There's people in the world who've been faster, but I think I'm getting there."

Hoff's former North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammate Allison Schmitt was second. Former Olympian Kate Ziegler was fifth.

The night's only surprise came in the 100 breaststroke, where Michael Alexandrov defeated Olympians Mark Gangloff and Eric Shanteau.

Alexandrov, a two-time Olympian for Bulgaria, won in 1:00.26, his best time while in a "jammer." Gangloff was second in 1:00.42 and Shanteau third in 1:00.75.

"This is huge and it gives me a lot of excitement. I knew I was going to take it. My training has been great," said Alexandrov, who became a U.S. citizen in 2006 and switched his sports allegiance to the U.S. after the Beijing Games.

"In order to take my swimming to the next level, this is something I had to do," he said.

Two-time Olympian Peter Vanderkaay won the 400 freestyle for the fifth time in seven years. He finished in 3:46.88, two seconds faster than his season-best. Michael Klueh was second.