Dara Torres 2nd in 50-meter freestyle

ATLANTA -- Dara Torres climbed to the second step on the podium.

It's been a few years.

With her surgically repaired left knee aching a bit, Torres was runner-up in the 50-meter freestyle Thursday night at the U.S. Winter Nationals, her highest finish since the Beijing Olympics.

"I'll take that," she said, holding young daughter Tessa.

The 44-year-old Torres, who won three silver medals in Beijing, is coming back from a radical operation with hopes of making one more trip to the Olympics. While her strength and conditioning isn't quite where it needs to be, she took second to Jessica Hardy, who won with a time of 25.08 seconds. Torres was next at 25.24, followed by Summer Nationals champion Lara Jackson in 25.30.

"I'm just glad I've got seven more months of training" until the Olympic trials, Torres said. "To be competitive, I need to get a little faster, a little stronger."

Still, this was a good step -- especially since Torres tweaked her knee last weekend working on starts. She received a cortisone shot Monday and was still a little tentative off the blocks during the morning preliminaries.

She felt much better in the evening.

"It's nice to finish second," Torres said. "I haven't been second in a while. If I do that at the trials, I'll be fine."

Ryan Lochte is also competing in the meet at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center, site of the 1996 Olympics. But the star of the world championships is at the peak of his training regimen and not even bothering to wear a racing suit. Competing in a green brief that sure made him stand out from the rest of the field, he struggled home sixth in the 200 individual medley, which was won by South Africa's Darian Townsend.

"I don't care what place I finish in the middle of a season," Lochte said afterward, having put on the bright green high-top sneakers he designed -- complete with his name on the bottoms. "I'm in the best physical shape I've ever been in. But I'm not in the best racing shape."

Other winners on the opening night of the three-day meet were Caitlin Leverenz with a personal best in the women's 200 IM, Nathan Adrian in the men's 50 free, and a pair of French swimmers in the 400 free: Camille Muffat on the women's side and Yannick Agnel for the men.

While most of the top American stars are in Atlanta, along with a strong international contingent that includes Japan's Kosuke Kitajima, one prominent swimmer is missing: Michael Phelps.

The 14-time Olympic gold medalist decided to finish out the year training at home in Baltimore, skipping both the Winter Nationals and the Duel in the Pool against a European all-star team, which will be held at Georgia Tech in two weeks.

"I like racing the guy," said Lochte, who upstaged Phelps this past summer at the worlds in Shanghai. "He makes everybody's level of intensity go up."

Lochte won five golds and a bronze at the worlds, beating Phelps in their two head-to-head races -- including the 200 IM, showing that fast times are possible without high-tech suits by setting a world record of 1:54.00. He was far off that pace in Atlanta, lagging in the middle of the pack the entire race and touching in 2:01.42.

Any concern?

Not a bit.

"Everything I do is geared toward the Olympic trials and the Olympics," he said. "Everyone looks at me to win every race because of who I am. But I've won maybe one or two races in season. I'm not worried about it at all."

Townsend touched first with a time of 1:59.27, followed by Sebastien Rousseau (1:59.55) and Eric Shanteau (2:00.29).

Torres is encouraged by her progress, given what she went through on the operating table. Her knee was in such bad shape after the 2009 worlds that doctors persuaded her to undergo a procedure that involved transplanting cartilage to her left kneecap. She underwent a two-year rehabilitation and only began competing a few months ago.

"It's fun to try. I thrive on challenges, which is psychotic," she said. "This is kind of a huge challenge."

Leverenz knocked nearly a second off her personal best to claim the women's IM in 2:09.39, the fourth-best time in the world this year. She was followed by two more Americans, Elizabeth Pelton (2:10.02) and Julia Smit (2:11.55). Katie Hoff, struggling to fight back from a disappointing performance at the 2008 Olympics that sent her career into a tailspin, was a full second behind Smit in fourth.

"I was pretty shocked when I saw the time," Leverenz said. "I'm still pretty shocked."

She credited her improved performance to training with Olympic champion Natalie Coughlin on the team at California, Berkeley.

"If I want to represent the U.S. in London, if I want to medal in London, I need to be at another level," Leverenz said. "I'm expecting a lot more of myself."

Adrian won the furious sprint to the wall in the men's 50 free, beating a star-studded field in 21.85. South Africa's Roland Schoeman (22.19) was next, with France's Frederick Bousquet (22.37) settling for third.

The French have sent a large contingent of their top swimmers to Atlanta, and they dominated the longer race. Muffat took the women's 400 in 4:03.64, far ahead of Americans Leah Smith (4:09.55) and Brittany MacLean (4:10.33). Olympic gold medalist Laure Manaudou, coming back from retirement and having a child, won the B final in 4:12.02.

Agnel took the men's 400 in 3:47.78, far ahead of American Michael Klueh (3:50.56) and Canada's Ryan Cochrane (3:50.62).