Another big night in the pool for Phelps & Co.

With Michael Phelps in the pool, the rest of the world is swimming for second place. The American set his third world record in as many days, winning the 200-meter individual medley at the world championships Thursday night.

"Michael is just out of reach," bronze medalist Laszlo Cseh of Hungary said.

Phelps used the same strategy he employed in winning the 200 freestyle and 200 butterfly -- go to the lead off the starting blocks and stay there. He came home in 1 minute, 54.98 seconds, bettering his old mark of 1:55.84 set in August at the Pan Pacific championships.

"I went out there and went after it," he said. "Why stop something that works?"

The televised red line showing how close swimmers are to world-record pace was on Phelps' rear as he cruised to the finish ahead of teammate Ryan Lochte, beating his previous best by 0.86 seconds.

"I have to say that it's very impressive," said Canadian Brian Johns, who was fifth. "Not only swimming that fast, but to do it night in and night out with everybody looking at him."

Phelps pumped his right arm as he checked the scoreboard, then hugged Lochte in the next lane. Lochte settled for the silver in 1:56.19. Cseh, the European champion, finished third at 1:56.92.

A mutant in the pool

Phelps became the first swimmer to win three world titles in the 200 IM and earned his record 14th world championship medal. He has also set world records in the 200 freestyle and 200 butterfly. His first gold came as part of the 400 freestyle relay.

"He is just a phenomenon, a mutant or something," U.S. women's team captain Tara Kirk said. "He's just going for personal best times now and they just happen to be world records."

Phelps is four-for-four so far in his pursuit of eight gold medals. He still has the 100 butterfly, 400 individual medley and likely spots in the 400 medley and 800 free relays to swim.

"I'm on that track, yes, but I'm only halfway done," he said.

He is clearly enjoying his victory walks around the pool. He stopped to sign autographs, shook hands with kids and shared a few laughs with Lochte, the second-fastest man ever in the 200 IM -- behind Phelps, of course.

On the medals podium, Lochte opened his mouth and flashed a gold, silver and diamond-crusted grill especially made by his hometown dentist. He wore the accessory favored by rappers on a dare from his teammates.

"Michael said his jaw was hurting. He couldn't stop laughing. He didn't think I was going to do it," Lochte said, joking that "hopefully swimmers will start wearing them."

U.S. women reclaim world mark

Not to be outdone by Phelps, the U.S. women's 800 freestyle relay took back the world record from Germany, winning by 3.73 seconds after barely scraping into the final.

Natalie Coughlin, Dana Vollmer, Lacey Nymeyer and Katie Hoff were under world-record pace all the way and finished in 7 minutes, 50.09 seconds to set the 10th world record of the meet.

Coughlin and Vollmer were part of the team that set the mark at the 2004 Athens Olympics, only to have Germany break it at last year's European championships. The United States beat Germany's mark by 0.73 seconds for its fourth consecutive world title.

"I couldn't see anybody, so I couldn't tell if I was going fast or not," said Coughlin, whose team was relegated to the far outside lane after a poor qualifying swim. Nymeyer was the only morning swimmer kept on for the final.

The Germans, including star Britta Steffen, took the silver. France, with Laure Manoudou swimming the anchor leg, finished third.

The night's most popular victory belonged to Aussie Jess Schipper, who had the home crowd roaring when she won the women's 200 butterfly in 2:06.39. It was the world record holder's first world title in the event after Schipper finished second to Otylia Jedrzejczak of Poland two years ago in Montreal.

Schipper was under her world-record pace through 100 meters, but she couldn't hold on. American Kimberly Vandenberg was the surprise silver medalist in 2:06.71. Jedrzejczak, the two-time world champion, took the bronze.

The festive Aussie fans stood and clapped as Schipper took her victory stroll to Men at Work's "Land Down Under."

International camaraderie

Filippo Magnini of Italy and Brent Hayden of Canada tied for the gold in the men's 100 freestyle, a furious two-lap sprint in which a mere tenth of a second separated the top five finishers. Magnini, the defending champion, and Hayden touched in 48.43 seconds. A thrilled Hayden threw his arms in the air to celebrate Canada's first gold of the meet. He and Magnini climbed out of the pool and embraced each other before the Italian jokingly flexed his muscles. The duo shared the top spot on the medals podium, with the Canadian anthem playing first, followed by the Italian one, which got the crowd clapping along.

"An Italian won, and the Australian crowd clapped their hands as if I was one of them," Magnini said. "It felt like being in Italy."

Eamon Sullivan of Australia got the bronze at 48.43.

Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands again was denied his first world championship with a sixth-place finish. The Flying Dutchman also lost to Phelps in the 200 free. South African teammates Roland Schoeman and Ryk Neethling, the second- and third-place finishers two years ago in Montreal, wound up seventh and eighth.

Phelps wasn't the only world-record beater on the night. American Leila Vaziri equaled her world mark in winning the 50-meter backstroke, a non-Olympic event, in her world championships debut. She first set the mark of 28.16 seconds in the semifinals Wednesday and matched it in the final.

With this performance, do you think Michael Phelps is the greatest swimmer of all time? Or does he first have to beat Mark Spitz's tally of seven gold medals in one Olympics? Did the retirement of Ian Thorpe cool down the rivalry between the U.S. and Australia or are these World Championships heating it up? Sound off on the Swimming message board.

By Beth Harris

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