Peirsol braces for Phelps challenge

CHARLOTTE: Aaron Peirsol can't remember the last time he lost in a final of the 100-meter backstroke, but he now has an intriguing new challenger - Michael Phelps.

Phelps is planning to try out some new events as he looks ahead to London 2012, a plan that puts him on a collision course with Peirsol, world record holder in the 100 backstroke and winner of the event at both the Athens and Beijing Olympics.

"Mike will do well, no doubt about it," Peirsol told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his home in Austin, Texas. "He's already been very, very fast and he hasn't even scratched the surface of his potential in that event." Peirsol isn't backing down from the challenge. In fact, he welcomes the chance to go against the world's greatest swimmer and be one of the few to beat him in an Olympic pool. Others are closing fast, too, including Japan's Ryosuke Irie, who nearly broke Peirsol's record of 52.54 at a meet in Australia on Sunday.

"I welcome the competition," Peirsol said. "For a long time, it's been kind of stagnant in that event. I need it. It's going to help me. It would be much more fulfilling to win against those guys than to win by a couple of seconds." Phelps and Peirsol are set to go head-to-head at the Charlotte Ultraswim, which begins Thursday and will be Phelps' first meet since he won eight gold medals in Beijing, breaking Mark Spitz's Olympic record.

The event is drawing more attention than usual in this non-Olympic year, largely because of Phelps' out-of-the-pool troubles. A picture of him inhaling from a marijuana pipe landed on the cover of a British tabloid, prompting USA Swimming to hand down a three-month suspension from competition.

The ban ended last week, and Phelps will be back in the pool for the first of three meets he plans to swim leading into the national championships in early July and the world championships in Rome later that month. In addition to the 100 backstroke, he's also entered in the 50, 100 and 200 freestyle, as well as the 200 butterfly.

Peirsol will be swimming his two signature events, the 100 and 200 backstroke, as well as other races. This will be the first meet he has fully trained for since Beijing, which puts him on an even keel with Phelps.