Michael Phelps has a shot to win six gold medals in six events at the world championships in Rome that begin Sunday, but the drama of his quest could fizzle quickly.
Phelps’s coach, Bob Bowman, figures a major dose of creativity will be required to help Phelps avoid kicking off the meet with an unwanted silver — or worse.
The problem — and it’s a big one — is that Race No. 1 is the 400-meter freestyle relay, one of three relays in which Phelps is expected to compete; he’s also entered in the 100 and 200 butterfly and the 200 free. Even with Phelps, who went eight for eight at the Beijing Summer Games last year, the United States appears more likely to lose by about three seconds than to upset France for the gold medal.
Buoyed by the latest 100-percent polyurethane suits, the French have taken over the 100 meters. Five of the top eight performances this year have come from Frenchmen.
“We’re strong except for one event; we’re weak in the 400 freestyle relay,” said Bowman, who is also the head coach of the men’s world championship team, by phone from Riccione, Italy. “We are clearly underdogs in that event. You can’t spin it any other way. [The French] have five guys under 48 seconds [this year] and we don’t have any.”
The U.S. team does have Phelps, who swam the American record of 47.51 seconds last year. But Phelps has been testing out a new stroke — a straight-armed motion — in the 100 and his best time this summer, 48.65, is ranked 34th in the world.
And unavailable is Jason Lezak, who produced the heart-stopping chase-down of Alain Bernard in the Olympics last year to salvage what had seemed a lost gold medal.
Lezak decided to compete this summer in the Maccabiah Games, an international Jewish athletic event, instead of the world championships. He surely made Bowman wince when he set a Games record with his 47.78 Sunday in 100 free, then reportedly followed that up with a 47.57 anchor-leg in the 400 free relay Monday.
Lezak’s individual 100 time is 0.22 faster than American Nathan Adrian swam in winning the 100 free at the U.S. championships two weeks ago. It’s also faster than any American has swum in the event this summer.
But it is not faster than the times posted by four Frenchman at France’s national championships in April. Bernard swam what appeared to be a world-record breaking 46.94. Though the world swimming governing body (FINA) denied the record because Bernard had competed in an unapproved suit, a statement was nonetheless made. Fred Bousquet, meantime, posted a 47.15; Amaury Leveaux, 47.76 and William Maynard, 47.77. There’s also Fabien Gilot, who broke 48 seconds (47.98).
What is Bowman to do against a field of so many sub-48 swimmers?
For one thing, he will lead-off with Phelps.
“He’s the only person we’ve got who can go 47-low,” Bowman said. “The key to the race is the lead-off leg; if you get lost behind in the waves, you’re not going to catch up.”
He also hinted at a bit of trickery.
“There is hope,” Bowman said. “We’re going to try some things that are going to surprise you. We might try some different firepower than we’ve used before.”
That could mean a slot for the mentally tough Ryan Lochte, who is not generally factored into the 100 relay equation because he is not a born speedster. Lochte helped Phelps win gold in the 4×200 free relay at last year’s Olympics, and won the 200 and 400 medleys at the U.S. swimming championships.
Lochte quietly swam in the preliminary round of the 100 freestyle at the championships before dropping out. He posted a 48.16 — a personal best that made him the fourth-fastest American in the event ever. Bowman surely noticed, though he declined to discuss the surprises he had in mind.
Lochte hinted that he would be ready for the job during the U.S. championships.
“When I train, I don’t really focus on one event in particular,” said Lochte, who lost his world record in the 200 backstroke to Aaron Peirsol during that meet. “I kinda just train for everything.”
Lochte’s appearance in the 100 heats at least earned him a slot in the relay pool.
“Anybody who makes the team,” USA Swimming National Team Director Mark Schubert said, “is a relay candidate.”
Besides Lochte and Adrian, Bowman will also have two members of last year’s gold-medal winning relay team to consider, Garrett Weber-Gale and Cullen Jones. Jones set an American record in the 50 free at the U.S. championships, but his best time in the 100 is 48.31. Weber-Gale is the third-fastest American in the 100, with the 47.78 that he swam last year, but he only managed a 48.19 at nationals.
There’s also David Walters, who finished second in the 100 free to Adrian. Despite the silver medal he earned, his time of 48.17 was slower than Lochte’s effort in the heats.
“We’re doing as well as we can do here,” Bowman said. “Everybody is training really well.”
That’s good for the 4×100 team. It will need it.