GOLD COAST, Australia — The second coming of Michael Phelps gained momentum with another gold medal at the Pan Pacific championships on a night when U.S. teenager Katie Ledecky set yet another world record.
The old and the new faces of world swimming delivered on expectations Saturday, with 29-year-old Phelps following up on his relay gold by winning his first individual title since returning to international competition following 1 ½ years in retirement. The most decorated Olympian in history won the 100-meter butterfly in 51.29 seconds, edging long-time U.S. teammate Ryan Lochte.
"It definitely feels good to have that sort of confidence back to be able to do it in an individual event," Phelps said. "What it does is really just guarantee me a spot on the world championships team next summer — that's the biggest thing and most important thing."
In the next final, 17-year-old Ledecky won her fourth gold medal of the meet, lowering her world record in the 400 freestyle to 3 minutes, 58.37 seconds.
Ledecky was under world-record splits for much of the race in an outdoor pool at the Gold Coast Aquatic Centre, then slipped slightly behind the pace before powering home with a last lap of 29.30 seconds to shave 0.49 off the world mark she set at the U.S. nationals earlier this month.
She also holds the world records in the 800 and 1,500 freestyle events, and won all three titles at the last world championships.
"It's a great feeling. It never really gets old," Ledecky said of her run of records. "I have some long-term goals. We're not quite there yet, but we'll get there." She still has the 1,500 meters to swim in Australia, where she has already won the 200, 800 and the 4x200-meter relay.
Tyler Clary won the men's 200 backstroke to give the U.S. its third gold of the night, and 11th for the meet.
Australia was in second spot with eight gold medals after winning the women's 100 butterfly and 200 backstroke and finishing off the third day of competition with victories over the Americans in the men's and women's 4x100 relays.
Alicia Coutts won the 100 butterfly in 57.64 from Lu Ying of China and American Kendyl Stewart, while Belinda Hocking led Australian teammate Emily Seebohm in a 1-2 finish in the backstroke, with American Elizabeth Beisel edging teammate Missy Franklin, the Olympic and world champion, for bronze.
Beijing Olympics gold medalist Park Tae-hwan of South Korea won the 400 freestyle in 3:43.15, more than a second ahead of Japan's Kosuke Hagino and Connor Jaeger of the United States.
Persistent rain that has overshadowed the meet since the opening day — even Phelps remarked about the "crazy, sideways rain" — eased up on Saturday night. Not that it would have bothered Ledecky.
"It was beautiful out there tonight," she said. "There's no rain underwater, so it doesn't really bother me."
Ledecky was the youngest member of the U.S. team at the 2012 London Games, where she won the 800 freestyle and where Phelps won his 18th gold and 22nd medal overall.
Phelps went into retirement and Ledecky's career went into overdrive. After an extended break, Phelps realized that he wanted to compete again and decided he'd try to qualify for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
He returned to competition in April with the aim of making the U.S. squad for the Pan Pacs. He achieved that by placing second in the 100 butterfly and the 200 medley, although his seventh in the 100 freestyle was a setback.
A fourth-place finish in the 100 final on Friday night gave him a confidence boost, and he went back into the pool to help the U.S. win the 4x200-meter relay — his first gold medal since returning to international competition.
Phelps added the butterfly gold and another relay medal — silver — to his tally on Saturday and still has the medley to race on Sunday.
"I know there's a lot that can happen in a year with training, and that's what I'm looking forward to," he said. "This is a building year for me after just getting back in the water and going through the ups and downs.
"I haven't been able to hit my walls like I want to, at a high speed. That's just going to have to be something I work on over the next year, and hopefully I'll be able to nail that."