CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Michael Phelps was in Lane 1 in Charlotte on Friday. His focus, though, was about 10,000 miles away.
Coming off a rare 200-meter butterfly loss last month in Michigan, Phelps finished sixth -- 1.34 seconds behind winner Dominik Meichtry -- in the 200 freestyle final on Friday at the Charlotte UltraSwim at Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center.
Phelps, working toward the World Championships in Shanghai in July, watched rising stars Ricky Berens and Ryan Lochte log impressive heat runs.
Phelps then fought through a slow start in a field featuring six Olympians, including the American 800 freestyle relay team from the Beijing Games, from a less-than-ideal outside lane.
"I was just praying to get in," Phelps said. "I watched Ryan and Ricky go off in their heats and wondered if I'd end up in the B heat. I was glad to sneak in. I needed to put more emphasis on getting in the middle lanes. I'm playing with fire a bit."
The focus and intrigue remains on Phelps, the 14-time Olympic gold medal winner, and the band of young speed around him.
The intensity of his training prompted coach Bob Bowman to take a three-week hiatus to Australia -- "I wasn't helping myself, Michael or anyone else, at that point," Bowman said -- returning refreshed and in time to regroup with Phelps in North Carolina.
"Michael has experience now, and he knows this," Bowman said. "Sometimes, he knows this too much. But we have 72 days to prepare for Shanghai, and that's where the focus is."
Weary of answering questions about no longer being unbeatable, Phelps, now 25, recognizes his changing role and approach through this talent-filled event.
"We used to have such a fly-and-die approach, and that's how I swam every race since Beijing," Phelps said. "I had an even split in that race, and it was probably the best race of my life. I need to get that back. The splits need to be closer and stronger; I want to see if I still have it in the tank.
"Before, it came easy for me. I don't have two speeds anymore. I need to focus on the small things that I once took for granted," he said.
Meichtry, a 2008 Swiss Olympian, won the USA Swimming Grand Prix event in 1:48.55, overtaking early leader Lochte and edging Berens, a local favorite who finished in 1:49.25. Markus Rogan finished third at 1:49.47.
Berens raced between Meichtry and Rogan, with whom he's trained with in Los Angeles recently. They all spent the first 50 meters chasing Lochte, who showed the way early sporting a hot pink suit during breast cancer awareness month.
All three caught the leader.
"It's great to know the California training is doing its thing for me," said Berens, whose girlfriend, Rebecca Soni, set a meet record on Friday.
In the end, none could match Meichtry.
"It's better for me to swim fast, get out front and hold on rather than try to catch the field," Meichtry said. "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."
Soni beat Southern California teammate Jessica Hardy in the 100 breaststroke with a meet record 1:05.57.
Hardy finished in 1:05.90, nearly three seconds ahead of third-place Jillian Tyler.
"I was very happy with those times," Soni said. "It was really cool to see the two of us get together like that. Our focus is definitely on the Olympics, and the summer will take care of itself."
Dana Vollmer, who set the meet mark at Ann Arbor in the 100 free last month, broke the meet record in Charlotte on Friday in the 100 fly, finishing in 57.82, ahead of Elaine Breeden.
"I tried to start off fast, but I felt so deep in the water in the morning," Vollmer said. "I wanted to feel lighter in the water, so I thought quick thoughts, tried to not concentrate on a quicker tempo but get through the water with less energy. "
Cullen Jones, who kicked off the Charlotte event on Thursday with a swim-off victory to earn a spot on the U.S. World Championship team, helped the SwimMAC relay team capture the 400 free relay in 3:22.25, with Eugene Godsoe, Josh Schneider and Nick Brunelli.
Club Wolverine's Daniel Madwed, Robert Savulich, Matthew Patton and Peng Wu placed second in 3:28.38.
Missy Franklin, two days after her 16th birthday, won the 200 free in 1:57.66, ahead of Allison Schmitt (1:58.18).
Eric Shanteau, who returned to competition in 2009 after a bout with testicular cancer, won the 100 breast in 1:01.49, his best time of the season.
Auburn's Tyler McGill defeated SwimMAC's Eugene Godsoe in 53.15 to win the 100 fly.
Pac-10 women's swimmer of the year Katinka Hosszu won the 400 individual medley over Allysa Vavra in 4:45.57. German Yannick Lebherz captured the men's 400 IM in 4:21.40, ahead of William Harris.
The event continues on Saturday and concludes with events Sunday.