ROME, July 27 — With another unfathomable number of world records — five Monday night — falling at the swimming world championships, and surprises lurking in every heat, it was easy to be distracted from one of the most engrossing storylines here, one not to be missed: Michael Phelps is under assault.
The man at the sport’s epicenter is feeling the heat from fast-charging men in superfast speedsuits, even in individual events he is accustomed to dominating. A day after Phelps claimed his first gold medal here despite swimming an unsensational leg in the 400-meter freestyle relay, and moments after winning his 200 freestyle semifinal heat Monday night, Phelps was giving an interview when he heard the meet announcer bellow, “championships record!”
He spun toward a nearby television screen.
Phelps, who is seeking six gold medals here, turned just in time to see German Paul Biedermann celebrating the 200 freestyle championship record he had just broken — a record Phelps had previously held — in the other semifinal heat.
“What did he go?” Phelps, officially distracted, asked eagerly. “He go 1:43?”
The answer was 1 minute 43.65 seconds, or .21 faster than Phelps’s 2007 record and 1.58 better than Phelps had swum in his heat.
“He just dropped a lot of time,” Phelps volunteered, almost talking to himself. “You usually don’t see a six-second drop in the 400 free in a year. In the 200 free, he dropped about three seconds in a year … It will get me more excited, more ready for tomorrow. I’m going to have to, I guess, really prepare myself.”
He probably is guessing right. No one thought Biedermann would break Ian Thorpe’s seven-year-old record in the 400 free Sunday night, and he did that. Who knows what Biedermann has in store for the 200 free in his Arena X-Glide speedsuit?
And it’s not just the 200 free in which Phelps will have his hands full. Serbian Milorad Cavic made it clear he has been gunning for Phelps since the Olympics last year in Beijing when Phelps out-touched him at the wall to win the 100 butterfly.
After winning the 50 fly final Monday in a championship-record 22.67, Cavic told reporters he would be thrilled to win the 100 fly this week, even if he were wearing a technologically more advanced suit than Phelps, who because of his Speedo contract is still wearing the LZR, a 2008-model suit that many consider outmoded.
Cavic charged that technology had cost him last year’s Olympic gold; he alleged he lost the medal on a timing error, saying he didn’t press hard enough on the touch pad with his initial touch.
“That,” he said, “is the story.”
Added Cavic: “Because of what happened, I did return to swimming with a desire I probably would not have had if I had won the Olympic gold.”
The 100 fly final takes place Saturday.
Phelps’s coach, Bob Bowman, said Phelps should win the 200 free Tuesday. Maybe.
“He has to be at his best,” Bowman said. “There is no leeway.”
And problematic for Phelps: He isn’t feeling so great about his freestyle stroke these days. On Monday morning, he announced that he was ditching the “straight-armed” stroke that he experimented with in sprint races this summer, saying “we tried something and it didn’t work.” The straight-armed approach was supposed to provide more power over short distances, but Phelps never got comfortable with it.
In the relay Sunday, Bowman said, Phelps seemed to be doing a cross between his old freestyle and the new one. His leg was slower than he swam last year in Beijing.
Phelps added that his freestyle stroke “was kind of off,” perhaps because of his attempts to manage both.
At least Phelps has time to get himself ready for his final five events, the 100 and 200 fly and the 200 free, along with two more relays.
Bowman, Phelps’s longtime coach, seemed secretly satisfied that Biedermann had pushed his emotional star’s buttons with his out-of-the-blue performances. Last year his time in the 200 free, 3:47.69, ranked 21st in the world. His time in the 200, 1:46.00, was ninth-best. Phelps and Bowman discussed their joint shock Sunday at Biedermann’s world-record swim, and the sad fact that the legendary Thorpe had been, finally, wiped from the record books.
“I think some people are going to bring the heat tomorrow night,” Bowman said. One of them, he said, “is M.P.”