ROME, July 29 — Michael Phelps got a text message from a longtime friend, a golfing buddy in Baltimore, Tuesday night after he was resoundingly beaten in the 200-meter freestyle at the swimming world championships. The message said, simply: “I know you hate getting second. If you want to let your emotions out, just give me a call.”
Phelps called his friend. He spewed his frustration. And then that was that. He went to bed, got the best night of sleep he’s had since he arrived here, and woke up Wednesday with a whole new view of the world.
That view got even better Wednesday night.
When Phelps spun and locked his eyes on the scoreboard at the end of the 200 butterfly final, he learned he had not only defended his world title in the event but broken the world record he set at last year’s Summer Games, finishing in 1 minute 51.51 seconds.
It was the eighth time he had broken the record since he first claimed it on March 30, 2001. It surpassed the 1:52.03 he swam last year in Beijing after his goggles filled with water, and it left second-place finisher Pawel Korzeniowski of Poland 1.72 seconds behind.
“That’s about what I wanted to go a year ago,” Phelps said. “To be able to go that without six months of training [after Beijing], that shows me there more in the tank.”
Phelps waggled his index finger and even punched a fist at the crowd. These world championships have been filled with drama and controversy over speedsuits and a storm of world records. Six more fell Wednesday, bringing the total to a mind-boggling 21. But the 200 butterfly final felt like a return to normalcy.
Phelps, wearing his seemingly antiquated Speedo LZR suit, which only covered his legs, still dominated like the old days.
“That was the first event I made the Olympic team in in 2000,” said Phelps, 24. “I’ve had fairly good success over the last eight years in that race. That’s kind of been, I guess you could call it, my bread and butter event.”
From the start, the question wasn’t whether Phelps would win. By the time he made his first turn, he was well out in front and under world-record pace.
“I wanted to step on it real hard in the first 100 meters,” Phelps said, “get out there in clear water.”
American Tyler Clary, who finished fifth in 1:54.45, nearly three seconds behind Phelps, got the feeling something special might happen when he glanced at Phelps as the eight finalists were about to be summoned to the pool deck.
“I can tell by his demeanor whether he is really going to go for it or not,” Clary said, “and he was definitely looking like that in the ready room.”
Bob Bowman, Phelps’s coach, also had a good feeling. Phelps seemed to be in a great mood over lunch, laughing and joking around. Unlike before the 200 free, an event that brought tension, Bowman said, Phelps seemed completely at ease.
That sense of comfort, however, was threatened about 30 minutes before the race by a suit mishap. Phelps brought a full-body Speedo LZR suit to the pool that he hadn’t yet broken in. He had grabbed the wrong one in his hotel room. The brand-new suit, he said, felt too tight on the shoulders when he warmed up in it.
So Phelps exchanged it for a pair of swim pants that he brought in case of an emergency. He figured it wouldn’t be a problem. Prior to this year, he had always used the pants for butterfly events.
Well, there was one concern. He noted with regret to Bowman that he hadn’t shaved his chest for ultimate sleekness and speed.
“I don’t think you’ve got that much hair,” Bowman pointed out helpfully.
Phelps quickly dismissed the suit issue, and informed his coach of his night’s plan.
“I wanted to really push the first 150 harder than ever,” Phelps said. “The third 50 is when I usually take it easy, but I told Bob, ‘Tonight I’m just going to go for it.’”
Phelps had attributed his defeat Tuesday to his six-month vacation after Beijing. He said he simply isn’t as fit as he had been last year at the Olympics. Yet Phelps broke his world record in the 100 fly just over two weeks ago at the U.S. championships. And then the 200 fly mark tumbled Wednesday.
The difference? Bowman said Phelps is such a natural at the butterfly that he simply doesn’t need to practice it as much. He never has. Bowman said he always stopped Phelps from overtraining the fly to ensure that he didn’t mess up his perfect form.
That’s why, Bowman speculated, Phelps managed to improve his time in the fly even while his freestroke performances faltered.
“He naturally does the butterfly stroke so beautifully,” Bowman said. “He conserves energy really well and he can get a lot out of a little bit of training.
“And sometimes he backs off. Tonight, he did not.”
Phelps had the best reaction time off the blocks of anyone in the field, getting out in 0.63 of a second. He touched the first wall in 24.76 seconds, .43 ahead of Japan’s Takeshi Matsuda, who finished third overall (1:53.32).
Phelps’s time through 50 meters, it is worth noting, was faster than 23 of the 96 entrants in the 50 fly managed in that event’s morning heats.
Clearly, Phelps had put the previous night’s defeat out of his mind.
He built his lead to 0.73 at the next wall, and 1.01 seconds off of the last wall.
“I knew nobody was going to go by him,” Bowman said. “That’s just how he is.”
Tags: Michael Phelps